Child Nutrition Director Adam Simmons: a Fresh Approach to School Food
Fayetteville Public Schools’ new Child Nutrition Director, Adam Simmons, having once cooked for the president in his previous culinary career, has shifted his priorities to making healthy meals for our students. With his culinary background, he is coming at child nutrition from a different angle--one that emphasizes the importance of preparing real, delicious food instead of the inexpensive convenience foods currently associated with many school cafeterias.
A chef for many years in high-end restaurants in Aspen, Simmons decided to make a career change after a visit to his nephew’s school in Little Rock left him feeling like they could do a lot better with what they were serving the children. The father of a two–year-old with another child on the way, Simmons is using his experience and passion to make real change in the food being served to our children.
Back to Scratch Cooking and Being Creative with a Dollar
Part of Simmons’ approach involves a gradual shift towards using old-school cooking methods in cafeterias. He feels that Fayetteville Public Schools’ cafeteria workers have been open-minded towards the shift from convenience-food prep toward scratch-prep, and Simmons used the experience of rolling burritos with the cafeteria workers at Butterfield Elementary as an example. “It didn’t take us very long, and by using the cheese and ground beef the USDA provides to schools and rolling our own burritos, we were able to make them for 17 cents each, which is half the price of a frozen burrito.”
Part of working within the existing school food system involves serious financial constraints. “We need to be innovative with what we have,” says Simmons. “In the 80s, under President Reagan, the food budget for schools was cut by 50 percent. What we are spending on kids now is still less than we did before that switch.” At the time of that budget cut many school cafeterias brought in a la carte items (which students pay for separately), which meant having burgers and French fries available to students all the time, in order to subsidize the other food. The switch to carrying a la carte items was not beneficial to children as portion sizes for a la carte items tend to be a lot larger, and the nutritional value tends to be lower. Simmons says that Fayetteville Schools have almost no a la carte items left in the cafeterias.
The Benefits of Local and Seasonal Food
A believer in the benefits of local produce, both for health reasons and for helping the local economy, Simmons is working to increase the ratio of local produce in the schools. The Farm to School program started by previous FPS Food Services Director Lisa Jenkins currently includes Washington, Leverett, and Asbell elementary schools. Simmons estimates local food in the schools at less than 5%, and is working to expand the program by building relationships with farmers who will grow exclusively for the schools. In Simmons’ previously held position in Farmington he succeeded in increasing the ratio of local produce in the schools to over 50%. Farmers who grew for the schools in Farmington also came to schools twice a year to talk to students about growing fruits and vegetables.
A byproduct of having local farmers grow for the schools is that menus will need to change seasonally, to accommodate the changes in what will be available at different times of the year. Produce is at its peak nutritional value when it is ripe, and foods that are picked early because of the long distances they need to travel to get to market lose out on nutritional potential. While the produce may change color and texture on its way to market, nutritional value comes through the stem of the living plant, and once harvested a vegetable is as nutritious as it is going to get. In addition to being better for you, food that is grown and harvested locally and in-season often tastes a lot better as well.
Environmental Choices Can Save Money
By purchasing local foods in-season, Fayetteville Public Schools will eliminate environmental damage caused by shipping foods long distances, and the food dollar will go directly to the farmer in our local economy. Another move towards greater sustainability will also benefit the bottom line: getting plastic and Styrofoam out of the schools.
“No one can feel like they’re sitting down for a meal with a spork in their hand,” said Simmons. Butterfield Elementary has just made the change from plastic to real silverware, an environmental as well as an aesthetic decision, and a switch that will save the district money in the long run.
Building National Awareness
Simmons is the president-elect for the state of Arkansas in a national organization called School Nutrition Association, which supports the child nutrition professionals around the country. Every year Simmons attends the SNA Legislative Action Conference which brings over a thousand child nutrition professionals to Washington, D.C., to help lobby congress for increased funding for their programs. Simmons is also a member of Senator Blanche Lincoln’s Arkansas Nutrition Advisory Committee, and works to help other members of congress and the USDA understand how the lack of funding for school food programs has direct consequences on the health of our nation.
When asked what was most important to him, Simmons said, “I want to serve the children a nutritious meal. I want to beat the stigma that school lunches are thought to have.” Fayetteville Public Schools is lucky to welcome Adam Simmons to the team of professionals helping our students reach their full potential.