SALAMANCA — Students who attend the Salamanca City Central School District this fall will be chowing down on school lunches unlike any they’ve had before.
The district and Brigaid, a start-up food service corporation whose chefs provide hands-on training, have begun a new food service partnership to transition Salamanca to a self-operating food service program and improve the quality and ingredients of school meals.
“Now we are scratch cooking everything in our kitchens, and we’ve had excellent feedback,” said Karen Magara, assistant superintendent for operations and finance.
The program debuted the new approach at the district’s welcome back picnics Aug. 25 and 26, Magara said. She said both students and staff alike loved the new menus, which included chicken kabobs, naan bread and corn on the cob, all fresh and made on site.
“They’re not buying processed food. Everything is being made,” she said. “They even made cookies from scratch, not from a boxed cookie mix.”
Before Brigaid, the district used a food service management company that offered a lot of “heat and serve” foods, Magara said, as well as things like prepackaged mixes.
Magara said the idea to hire Brigaid came about when one of the district’s administrators saw the company’s owner, Chef Dan Giusti, on an episode of “Rachael Ray Show.” She said Giusti was discussing his decision to leave the restaurant business and start bringing better food options to schools.
“She said this is really cool and we’ve talked for years about getting something different happening in our cafeterias,” Magara said. “So we got ahold of him and next thing you know we’re under contract with them and they’re here.”
With Brigaid’s assistance, Magara said the district hired John Haley, a local chef who previously worked at Cattaraugus Community Action’s Food Pantry, to serve as its food service manager.
Brigaid and outgoing food service manager Drew Venezia will help train Haley, then support him in building a self-operated, healthy school food program in all three Salamanca schools over the course of the year.
Brigaid, Haley and the district’s food service team will also work with local Seneca Nation members to adapt indigenous recipes and foods to fit the NSLP guidelines, Magara explained, then feature these foods throughout the year.
“I’m hoping we could buy tomatoes or potatoes or something like that so we can use locally produced produce,” she said. “We also want to work with them to potentially bring in some bison to make bison chili or things like that for the kids.”
Many Salamanca food service staff have returned, while others have been recently hired, Magara said. Together, the district and its food service employees are committed to providing students with “the very best in food and service.”
On Wednesday, the first day of school, Superintendent Robert Breidenstein shared that one student told him the cafeteria was so quiet because everyone was actually eating, Magara said.
Magara said the goal is to equip Haley and the department’s cooks and food service helpers with the skills they need to build a program for Salamanca’s students that reflects the region and its people.
“We’re taking it one small step at a time and really focusing on lunch at this point,” she explained. “Once we get that down, probably around January, then we’ll start focusing on breakfast options. By next September, everything will be made from scratch all the way around.”
Even with the new food service from Brigaid, all students’ lunches and breakfasts are free for the first serving, Magara said.
The USDA has extended its free meal program for qualified districts through the end of the 2021-22 school year, Magara said. However, through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), Magara said Salamanca will be offering free meals through at least 2024.
“I think the staff is just as excited as the kids are,” she added. “Everything has been great so far, and working with Brigade has been top notch.”