By Chris Collins
Jessica Wickert, the Baker School District's Food Services director, believes that students who are better educated about their food will be more interested in eating it when it's served at mealtime.
That philosophy has garnered prestigious awards for her and the school district.
Last summer, Wickert was one of 15 chosen to attend a week-long National Food Services Management training in Southaven, Miss., where she learned more about menu planning, marketing and budgeting.
In her second year in the position, Wickert again earned special notice.
This time it was for her efforts to comply with the National School Lunch Program guidelines that require at least 50 percent of the grains used in meal plans to be whole grains.
The Baker School District won grand prize in the "Rookie Division" of the Whole Grain Challenge sponsored by the Boston-based Oldways, a nonprofit organization, and its Whole Grains Council.
As the grand-prize rookie winner, the Baker School District not only received a myriad of whole-grain product samples, but two guest chefs from Indian Harvest visited the district last month to introduce five whole-grain dishes and demonstrate how to prepare them.
The visiting chefs were Michael Holleman and Coleen Donnelly.
Hollman is the director of culinary development for Indian Harvest Speciltifoods Inc. and Donnelly is the K-12 corporate chef.
The company, which has its headquarters in northern Minnesota, produces and procurers grains, beans and legumes for the food-service industry and retail businesses, according to a press release.
Wickert said she contacted the Whole Grain Council when she began considering how to get students excited about eating whole grains.
"They seem like a foreign thing to most kids," she said.
She called the council in the hope of obtaining promotional materials and posters that she could incorporate in a "Grain-of-the-Month" program, similar to the "Food-of-the-Month" program she implemented last year.
During the call, she learned about the contest.
"I entered and got really lucky - and I won," she said. "I've been receiving tons of whole grain samples."
Fourteen people, including members of the school district's food service staff, Elkhorn Adolescent Treatment Center staff and Louise Rasmusson, Food Services director at the Pine-Eagle School District in Halfway, attended the demonstration.
Wickert estimated the value of the training and the product samples totaled at least a few thousand dollars.
The chefs talked about the importance of making the food look appealing by using bright colors and to ensure that everything is finished cooking at the optimum time.
For example, rice that is ready to eat too far in advance will turn to mush when it's time to serve it.
"It's important to do it well the first time," Wickert said, especially with whole grains, to ensure that students will eat it the next time it's served.
Thanks to the Whole Grains Council, Wickert has expanded her own horizons regarding the whole-grain options available.
Take amaranth, for example, May's whole grain of the month.
The May school menus featuring amaranth provide this information:
andbull; It was grown for millennia by the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans who thought it had magical powers.
andbull; It is more nutritious than wheat: much higher in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
andbull; It is gluten free
"I have never had amaranth before in my life," Wickert said. "I'm finding new grains and new cooking techniques."
Ensuring that half of the grain used in meals is whole grain and that the students will eat it takes more than just serving brown rice and whole wheat pasta, she said.
"You have to get the whole grain in the main dish."
During their visit to Baker City, Holleman and Donnelly, the Indian Harvest chefs, demonstrated these five whole-grain dishes, which they say have been popular with school nutrition managers across the country:
andbull; Sunrise Breakfast Apple Parfaits
andbull; Wheat Berry and Black Bean Salad
andbull; Buffalo Chicken and Barley Salad
andbull; Black Pearl Medley Chicken Fried Rice
andbull; Whole Grain 5 Blend Deep-Dish Beef Chili
"We cooked and talked for two and a half hours in a casual, informal setting," Donnelly wrote in a press release about her trip to Baker City. "We told stories and shared information about the challenges of school lunch that everyone in the country faces.
"The conversation continued through lunch," she wrote. "Everyone enjoyed the dishes and thought the kids would, as well."
Donnelly added that she felt lucky to meet Wickert, who she described as one of "the lesser-known directors who approach school meals from a different angle.
"Jessica Wickert is one of those directors. She runs a very small district and doesn't have corporate funding or a PR budget. But she is making a big difference."
Wickert says she will be working with her staff to perfect their preparation of the whole-wheat recipes during the summer meal program.
And she hopes to implement cooking classes on Fridays.
"I'm excited to do some new things on the menu," she said.
More information about the Whole Grains Challenge and the recipes prepared by the guest chefs can be found by visiting this website: wholegrainscouncil.org.