NORTH CRAWFORD When Jennifer Kapinus started with North Crawford School as the Food Service Director, she had a distinct goal. Bring local food and scratch cooking into the school district. Kapinus and her staff have slowly but surely been working to achieve these goals for students and staff at North Crawford. However, with COVID related supply chain issues, those efforts have been ramped up more than ever.
“One important message I want to get out there is that despite hard food shortages, we’re still feeding every single kid who comes through for a meal, and I don’t see that ever changing,” Kapinus emphasized right away.
School districts have in the past primarily relied on two main providers, the USDA and a wholesale food provider that the district puts out bids for every year, such as SYSCO or Gordon Foods. The district is also allocated dollars to be spent on these programs, which as Kapinus notes carries some good fresh produce but also an abundance of highly processed foods. But many of what were considered staples in the program can now be hard to come by.
“When COVID started, and a lot of the plants that produced these food products shut down, it stifled what was available,” Kapinus recalled. “Then the government made the announcement that lunch would be free to all children, which is a great and wonderful thing, but it caused the demand to start outpacing the supply and it was crippling. Many of our monthly food commodities were beginning to get canceled, and it became hard to get our hands on things like chicken and bread products. What do you do? We were forced in a way, to begin to shop locally. But it became a blessing because we are so surrounded by an abundance of locally-produced food.”
Kapinus explained that although she is thrilled to be able to support local businesses and farmers, the process is typically a little more complicated. The district would normally need to go through a procurement process, which would include multiple bids on items to secure the best price. However, due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain shortages, the district and food service program is acting under a emergency authorization to shop without bidding out first. As Kapinus notes though, she makes a strong effort to shop around and share the food service spending dollars throughout the community.
“We’re buying our bread from Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca, we purchase items from the Marketplace in Gays Mills. We’ve committed to buying beef locally, and we work to rotate through family farms within our district,” she explained. This move has even prompted the Wisconsin Beef Council to reach out to Kapinus to help create a model of buying local beef for other school districts who are struggling with the schematics and logistics.
Recently, the USDA announced that one billion dollars will be allotted to buy food for schools. Approximately 17 million of those funds will be distributed throughout Wisconsin school districts, which Kapinus notes will be a “good chunk of funding,” coming for North Crawford. One of the caveats of this funding is that the money must be used to purchase unprocessed foods.
“It’s tough because the money is great, but where will we buy the food?” Kapinus questioned with a little bit of a chuckle. The food service director went onto explain that some of the most difficult things to find have been chicken and bread (or grain related products in general). Adding, that along with this grant, schools would be able to buy ingredients to mill their own wheat, to bake their own products, but, as many could guess, the time and staffing for that are somewhat unrealistic for most school districts.
Recently the team in the kitchen made homemade hot cocoa muffins, which were both well received but very labor intensive for the moderately sized staff. The search continues to try to find grain-based food items to serve students for breakfast, as adding a grain to the breakfast meal is part of USDA requirements.
“We have a lot of kids coming through asking for cereal, but we haven’t been able to get most cereal products for months. We have to assure them to just hang in there. And in the meantime work on finding creative things they both like to eat and we can get in, like the muffins.” Currently, Kapinus and her staff are usually able to provide granola bars or bagels as an alternative to cover the requirements for grains, but she notes that she is currently looking for “breakfast inspiration.”
“If anyone has an idea of what we can use or buy that could fit our program, they can reach out to me,” Kapinus noted. “Even if it's just a recipe they think would fit our needs. That would be great!”
Additionally, Kapinus needs to work with standardized recipes when cooking in the school kitchen. Creating meals that fit in the parameters of healthy eating set by the USDA, when adding in less processed foods than those preset by the USDA and the wholesalers can be a challenge. All of this has been helping the staff at the North Crawford Kitchen gain valuable skills.
“We can’t do scratch cooking for every meal, but we’re working to gain skills and we’re a lot further along than when we started. For example, we haven’t made instant potatoes once for the whole year.”
The adventure has been equally as exciting and new for the kids as it has for the staff, Kapinus notes.
“It’s especially exciting to see the elementary kids try new things,” Kapinus said. “I made pork roast from Solar Meats in Soldiers Grove, and one kid came up to me and asked what it was because it didn’t look like anything they’d ever eaten before, but they tried it and really liked it,” Kapinus remembered.
She explained that when introducing new foods to the elementary, if they’re unsure about it, they’ll give them a sample size and they’re always welcomed to come up and get more.
“Taco soup was another one I wasn’t so sure about for the elementary students, but they tried it, and they loved it!” Kapinus enthused.” The garden bar has also been an unexpected hit for the elementary students, who notably love all of the colorful fresh vegetables available.”
“Participation is what drives our program,” Kapiuns explained “Although the meals are free right now, when people eat through our program, we get revenue from the government. So we gotta have people eat, so we gotta serve food that appeals to the kids. We really want students to eat here. It is fresh, healthy and free. And eating here supports the district. We will continue to make our number one goal to have local and fresh food available. This (COVID pandemic) has taught us that we’re capable of doing a lot more than we realize.”
As time goes on, one of the big goals that Kapinus has is to do a monthly feature of the farmer or producer that the school district is utilizing. For now however, the local and from scratch ingredients will continue to be noted on the new digital version of the food service menu beginning in the new year.To contact Kapinus with inspiration, food, or other questions or solutions she can be reached at 608-735-7213 or at email email@example.com.