Paving the Way for School District Champions
An interview with school food service expert Tim Cipriano
Chef Tim Cipriano started his career in the kitchen as a child, but who wouldn’t with a great grandmother nicknamed “Nana Noodles”? Tim spent many years working in restaurants before starting a family. It was at that pivotal point in his life that he made the move to school food.
With a goal of transitioning the focus of school nutrition to locally-sourced, fresh, whole food, Cipriano has manned the helm of numerous food services departments in Connecticut including New Haven Public School District (NHPS), Guildford Schools, and Farmington Area Public Schools under Chartwells.
“The biggest impact we have had on the children is by incorporating salad bars into our menus to increase access to fresh vegetables, many from local farms,” said Chef Tim during his time at New Haven. “The biggest obstacles we face revolve around the lack of funding to serve a truly healthy meal,” he continued. “We are working to overcome this obstacle by incorporating more plant-based proteins in place of meat-based proteins thus reducing the food cost of the item.”
Chef Tim’s solutions have paid off. During his time working in school districts, he often sat with students during lunchtime, and many of them thanked him for getting salad bars into their schools. His most rewarding moments he says are when he convinces children to taste a vegetable that they’ve never eaten before. “The best is when I see their expression when they finally taste it,” said Chef Tim. “It is not always positive but the expression itself is worth a million bucks to me!”
A defining moment in his career came when he saw a student putting his lunch in his backpack. When Chef Tim asked the boy “Why?”, the child responded that he wasn’t saving it to eat later; it was so his sister could eat dinner that night. “That changed my life and vision for school food,” shared Chef Tim. “From that moment on I decided to dedicate much of my free time to work with Share Our Strength to help put an end to childhood hunger and to serve more real food daily because these meals often are, in some cases, the only nutritious meal of the day!”
Tim’s efforts extended beyond the school districts. He has worked with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro to help create the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, and he’s worked with the White House to implement the Chefs Move to Schools Campaign.
Chef Tim’s impact on serving real food in schools is evident. As a result of his tenure at NHPS, they now boast that the pastas, breads, and rice that students eat are always whole grain; chicken nuggets and other breaded, highly-processed proteins have been replaced by chicken that is roasted on the bone; 100% of their schools have salad bars, all of which serve fresh vegetables prepared from scratch; and, at the time of his departure in 2012, over 170,000 pounds of produce had been purchased from local farms.
While at Farmington Chartwells, Chef Tim said his focus was farm-to-school. He worked on bringing farmers and local chefs in to offer taste tests to his students. He still applauds the company’s continued efforts to move towards more local, sustainable practices and food education. In Chef Tim’s eyes the collaboration of farmers, chefs and food service is a “win, win, win.”
Chef Tim is also a believer in community involvement. When working with Guildford Public Schools, he helped rally the school community in raising enough money to receive four new salad bars from Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools. He says having the public support of a project is the key to its success.
While it wasn’t easy or quick (Chef Tim emphasizes “baby steps”), these changes are possible in all school districts with strong leaders. “The best way to create positive change is to identify the champion in the school or school district,” he said. “This champion will be your vehicle to partner with to make the most changes and could be the food service director, a teacher, or even a student.”
Although Chef Tim has moved on to new ventures in the healthy food industry, the champions in each of his former districts have carried on his crusade.