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from Fresh Avenue Marketing Director, Amber Parrow

I was on the phone until 1 AM. I’m sure that has happened to many of us when catching up with family, but it is more so when you realize your distant cousin works in foodservice. But to realize she has been showing kids the world of great food making sure fresh produce had a starring role made the conversation go on and on!

Charlotte Newman manages the cafeteria program for a private school in North Carolina and is responsible for feeding 500+ kids and staff each day. It all began when the former foodservice director, Dorotea Evans, let Charlotte explore and create new ideas for the school’s salad bar. Now Charlotte develops the menus for the full K to 12 age range, and shared some insights into how she worked to get teens loving kale chips and snacking on whole fruits in the afternoon, wean middle schoolers out of their ranch dressing addiction, and has all the kids craving salads with a variety of leafy greens, dressings, and specialty produce mixed in. Like so many in education, she sees the families turning to convenience foods, so the cafeteria program gives them critical access and exposure to fresh and quality foods. Here’s a few of the key takeaways on how Charlotte has been able to develop the menu and increase the curiosity and love of produce in kids.

Changing Palates

Sometimes we forget what it is like to be a kid and if you think about it, their bodies make an incredible transformation in the space of 18 years. I think one of the reasons Charlotte’s program has been successful is that she recognizes the development of taste with children and plans accordingly. She said introduction of salads starts with elementary ages. Garlic and stronger flavors are used more in middle school and as kids reach high school more variety of flavors and textures are accepted and loved. Watermelon radishes are a go-to as the flavor and aftertaste is more approachable.

Letting Kids be Kids

As Charlotte introduces new items, she tells them they can spit something out, but they have to try it first. At these ages peer pressure is a powerful tool and she mentioned that she only has to get one kid at a table eating something new and different and the rest of the kids will follow. Another part of the program at this school is they allow the older kids, especially boys and those who are in athletic programs burning off more calories, to come back for seconds and thirds. Something they also started doing and saw success with was putting out whole fruits like oranges and apples for the kids to take for afternoon snacks.

The Right Combinations

In introducing the stronger flavors, Charlotte noticed that some of the hesitation to eat certain things like Brussel sprouts and broccoli was the smell and aftertaste. She would experiment with different flavors to add like lemon or balsamic vinegar and rock salt. The kids reported back that they liked their broccoli that way and more of them are now eating a vegetable that is frequently avoided. Also, serving these strong flavors back-to-back with Brussel sprouts one day and broccoli the next helped the kids accept one over the other. If there was something heavy with onion or garlic, she plans a desert with peppermint to help cleanse the kid’s palate.

The Ranch Addiction

One thing Charlotte does fight is the Ranch addiction phase that seems to reach its height in middle school. The school goes through one gallon of the dressing a day and they have learned to limit the kids to one ladle and keep watch to help curb that addiction. Over time other dressings and combinations are introduced by the time they reach high school like balsamic vinaigrettes. Caesar salad is one of the school’s favorite thanks to the dressing and homemade croutons.

Always Looking for New and Different

The menu at this school is by no means boring or stagnant. Charlotte is always looking for new and different menu ideas to keep things interesting and experimenting with what does and doesn’t work with the kids. She said she loves the resources US Foods provides and speaks with their chefs on new ideas with developing the school’s menu.

Open and Direct Communication

One of the biggest takeaways is that in working with the kids at the school, they have a direct line of communication with Charlotte, either in person or in email, on what they do and don’t like. The advantage is the kids are honest with their feedback, but not only that, Charlotte is listening and observing what the kids do and don’t eat, and paying attention to other behaviors that she works to the advantage of introducing even more good food.

Other Insights

So many things that we discuss and hear about with produce has struck a nice balance with this school. Charlotte takes advantage of purchasing through US Foods to tap into the national supply chain that keeps a year-round supply of fresh fruits and veggies that otherwise are seasonal. But as someone who’s family has been in North Carolina for many generations, she knows the regional staples like sweet potato and incorporates it in the menu. Charlotte also mentioned grilling watermelon and pumpkin for a new take on the seasonal standards. Their middle schoolers involved ingrowing with hydroponics. What took off with that program is pumpkin, producing enough for the school to integrate into the fall menu.

COVID Impact

As Charlotte is planning for the upcoming school year, she is calling the county health department and working with them on current guidelines to serve the kids with the extra precautions. It is limiting the variety and choice that the kids have grown to love. Salads are now being packaged as grab and go, the kids aren’t able to have contact with the food, and sauces, condiments, and dressings have to be in packets. More of her budget is going to disposable plates and silverware to replace the trays. Water fountains are not going to be available, but instead single-serve bottled water. Both of us agreed that as far as concerns with environment and sustainability, COVID has forced a step backwards. Even so, as case counts go down, the health department will be monitoring and slowly reintroducing these things. But maybe it’s a good thing, showing the success of these efforts that as the menu is simplified, the kids are raisin a fuss for the variety and access to fresh produce they have grown to crave!

We are Here to Help!

Schools are a big part of what we do here at Fresh Avenue and have some great options with three part salad mixes, baby spinach, and apple slices.  All items are cut, washed, and packaged with our apples available in individual packages. When you combine great product from our grower / processors with Fresh Avenue’s comprehensive logistic services, getting product to your foodservice program, whether that is at a school or restaurant is easier than ever!  Give us a call if you have any questions!

Free Infographic Download

Get a summary of Charlotte’s tips and tricks on our Teaching Kids to Love Produce infographic. Don’t forget to share with a friend!