Meatless lunch options served with love at Heartland ElementarySep 08, 2022 12:36PM ● By Jet Burnham
Heartland Elementary Kitchen Manager Kim Stafford loves to make food that her students like to eat. So, when she started to identify a number of students who were turning down the school lunch entrees, she wanted to know why.
When she discovered many students had special dietary needs, she went out of her way to provide alternative lunch options for them.
Many of the students don’t eat meat due to cultural or personal reasons. Heartland has students that are Muslim and Jewish who follow specific food preparation rules.
The district provides about 10 substitute meatless meals but Stafford didn’t want to keep serving alternative sunbutter sandwiches, salads, and plain noodles, which made the kids stand out as different from their peers.
Stafford worked with a nutritionist to develop alternative meals similar to what the other kids were being served. Instead of limited menu options, vegetarian students now get the same variety as their peers. She replaces chicken with extra vegetables and makes a pot of meatless spaghetti sauce instead of just serving plain noodles. Many of the students can eat fish, so Stafford has become creative with fish sticks to create more options, such as fish wraps and fish sandwiches.
Principal Buddy Alger said it is common for kitchen workers to adjust lunch options for kids with food allergies but what Stafford does is extraordinary.
“Kim not only took initiative to meet with the dietician and find out what was healthy and valuable, she went above and beyond to make sure it was a delicious meal, not just what fits the requirements of the meal,” Alger said.
Alger said these accommodations have helped the kids feel a sense of belonging.
“The lunchroom is a place where people come together, you know the custom of breaking bread together breaks down walls,” he said. “Well, if you can’t eat the same thing I can eat, that feels wrong. Kim has really torn down that wall by being able to make meals appropriate for all of the students at Heartland, regardless of their religious beliefs.”
Alger said Stafford is excited about the alternative meal options she offers, and when she sees the kids coming through the lunch line, she gets excited to bring out their special lunch, which makes the kids excited, too.
“They’re all excited to get their adjusted menu because she has something delicious to offer them that meets their needs,” he said.
When problems come up, Stafford finds creative solutions.
The school district plans treats each month and one of the most popular is the pudding dirt cup. Last year, kitchen staffs experienced shortages of supplies, including plastic silverware and plastic cups. Stafford set aside cups months in advance to ensure there were enough for the dirt cups, and when gummy worms didn’t show up in that week’s food delivery, she rushed to the store to purchase them herself.
“It’s not a dirt cup without gummy worms,” she said. “The kids love those special treat days so much, I didn’t want to take it away from them.”
Another time, she ran out of Lucky Charms cereal and so she called around to several other school cafeterias until she found some for one of her special ed students, who depends on his routine of eating Lucky Charms for breakfast.
Alger said families are grateful that their kids are getting their dietary needs met and students are happy because they are getting a satisfying meal instead of only eating a portion of their lunch. That means they aren’t hungry for the rest of the school day.
“Kids are grateful for the adjustment,” Alger said. “I think kids are fuller, and we know that kids learn better on full bellies.”
Stafford loves her job. This is her fourth year as kitchen manager at Heartland Elementary and her seventeenth year working in Jordan School District. She was selected as one of the 2022 Outstanding Educational Support Professionals.
Stafford loves taking care of people with food. She often will make a treat for teachers—a pot of soup or cinnamon rolls. This year, she started inviting each child to come to the cafeteria for a cookie on their birthday.
“I’ve just always loved cooking for people and making them happy and putting a smile on their face,” Stafford said. λ