Boardman Local School District's food service director is one of three food directors in Ohio, and two from the Mahoning Valley, to be selected to attend the Produce Safety University this spring.
Boardman's Natalie Winkle and Austintown Local School District's Tascin Brooks were chosen for the training sessions, along with a food director from the Reynoldsburg area.
The goal of PSU is to help school food service staff identify and mitigate food safety risks in fresh produce. The honor includes an all-expense-paid, weeklong experience sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the sessions are offered in California, Florida, Maryland and Illinois.
The honor resulted from the Ohio Department of Education being asked to nominate three food service directors from the state for the federally funded opportunity.
The selection was based on the directors the ODE thought exhibited diligence with compliance in their respective school meal programs as well as an excitement in their field.
"We've seen Natalie's excitement for her job, as she prepares, and in many cases invents the healthiest and tastiest meals possible," Boardman Local Schools Superintendent Tim Saxton stated in a recent news release. "Student taste tests, the 'Food Wheel of Fortune' and Tot Chef's classes all began under her watch."
Winkle is in her third year as Boardman's food service director. In her short time at the helm, she has seen a lot of produce used on the school menu. In fact, she said it offers opportunities for the students to take part in the growing experience of produce.
"If the students are involved in the process from the beginning, they will more likely to eat the produce," she said. "There is a big push for farm to school. Getting kids to eat veggies that are fresh more than processed. Of course I hope the program offers other 'tips' on how to make veggies 'fun' to eat!"
Winkle said she is eager to learn more about the farm to table program, school gardens and safety when dealing with fresh produce.
In Boardman, Winkle has a budget to work with and spends around $450,000 a year for food.
"It seems like a lot, but if you break it down for 4,400 students for breakfast and lunch," she said, "but it is not that much per day for the year."
Another area Winkle has to stay on top of is meeting federal and state guidelines. She said most have been in place for the past six or seven years and have been set up for a gradual change. She gave the example of slowly reducing the total sodium over several years.
The biggest challenge is not so much the guidelines but trying to give students something they will take to.
"I feel like the biggest challenge in school food service is giving the students items they like to eat," Winkle said. "I am trying new items all the time to find the types of foods the students like. For instance, we are having an Asian day at BCIS on Jan. 17. We are going to serve the students Asian chicken broccoli bowls. We are putting the lunch in a Asian takeout container complete with chop sticks. We are offering a spice sauce station for the students to choose which sauce they want. I think it will be really fun."
By making new foods fun again, Winkle is hoping students will enjoy the healthier menu both at school and at home. She plans to keep that focus for the future.
"I hope the future of Boardman food service will be a fun environment that keeps bringing exciting foods and fun back to the lunch room," she said. "I really enjoy my job and I think food is essential to all we do. I also think if you eat healthier you have more energy to do the fun things in life that you want to do."
Winkle plans to attend the Produce Safety University with Brooks. The two directors have not yet chosen which location they want to go to, but they both feel honored about being selected for the program.