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Jenna Noffsinger: Healthy Meals, Healthy Minds

10 cents a meal Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities Jenna Noffsinger food service manager Frankfort-Elberta Area School District Frankfort Elementary School Frankfort High School Food Corps MSU Extension

Questions & Answers with community faces

Students in the Frankfort-Elberta Area School District ate nutritious and delicious food this past school year, thanks to a collaboration between food service manager Jenna Noffsinger (a 2006 Frankfort graduate) and FoodCorps, a national nonprofit with a mission of working with communities to “connect kids to healthy food in school.”

Noffsinger returned to Frankfort in 2012 to put her degree in food science from Michigan State University (MSU) to use. She married Chris that summer, and they now have a nearly-two-year-old daughter, Stella, who Noffsinger attributes as the reason that she strives so hard at her job.

“I try to make food for the students that I would also feed my little girl,” says Noffsinger, who just completed her first school year as a full-time food service manager for Frankfort. (Prior to this, she was working part-time at Frankfort.)

FoodCorps—whose local service site partner is MSU Extension—placed service member Mikaela Taylor in the Frankfort/Benzie community this past school year to support and highlight Noffsinger’s utilization of the “10 Cents a Meal” funds, which are intended to serve healthy, homemade meals. Since schools only have 20-30 cents per meal to spend on produce, the 10 Cents a Meal program provides matching funds—in the amount of 10 cents per meal—for schools to buy from neighbor farms, thereby investing in local economies and putting Michigan-grown food on children’s plates. This financial cushion helps school food service managers like Noffsinger to try new things.

FoodCorps helped Noffsinger to place local products on the menu, increase exposure to vegetables, and engage students during monthly taste tests that highlighted the respective “Harvest of the Month.”

Noffsinger would prepare a new recipe on a designated day each month and send it to the elementary school. Then Taylor would serve the students sample-size portions of the item and allow them to vote on whether they “loved it,” “liked it,” or “tried it” (but it wasn’t their favorite). Noffsinger would then determine whether that new recipe should go on the menu.

During the 2015-16 school year, students tasted nine new recipes: roasted romanesco cauliflower, baked apples, roasted butternut squash, Panther Fries (roasted rainbow carrots), un-BEET-able hummus, frozen fruit smoothies, Aztec grain salad with white beans, and Italian bean pasta salad with radishes.

“Students have begun to realize that they can have a say in designing their own lunch menu and are beginning to request new items [like balsamic dressing for their salad bar],” says Taylor, who remembers one student giving a rating of ‘3 million’ on a scale of one to five after trying a frozen fruit smoothie.

“Creating healthy school food environments is a key factor in reversing the trends of chronic diet-related diseases that are plaguing our country,” Taylor explains. Better health and nutrition also enhance classroom learning and academic success. Other signs of progress are reflected in changing attitudes toward fruits and vegetables, willingness to try new foods, reduction of cafeteria waste, participation in the school meal program, and support of local farmers.

Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Jenna Noffsinger and asked what effect the collaboration with FoodCorps has had.

The Betsie Current: How has your meal plan benefited from the presence of FoodCorps?

Noffsinger: The taste tests that occurred once a month in the elementary cafeteria helped me to try different recipes in small batches and get feedback from the students. I used the feedback from the teachers, students, and FoodCorps members to decide whether to put the recipe on my menu for following months or to try something else. The taste tests have been pretty positive this year, and I have been able to put different vegetables on the menus and know that the elementary kids are going to remember it and eat it, instead of throwing the food away. Mikaela [Taylor] also provided a few recipes that are school-approved to try, in case I needed inspiration. I have noticed a difference in how much the elementary kids try out new vegetables compared to the high school kids, who aren’t involved in the taste tests. It helps me also to incorporate different local products that the kids might not have tried before, and hopefully they will continue eating healthier foods at home or convince other family members to try new things.

Current: Can you think of any particular comments or reactions to the taste tests?

Noffsinger: The kids loved the carrots, apples, romanesco, and smoothies. They love romanesco because they look like little trees. With all of the taste tests, I have had pretty positive results, but the list of the most “loved” have been put on the menu. The smoothies were the most loved by far, but they take the most time, and it takes 16 ounces to amount to a full serving of fruit. Therefore, when we have smoothies for breakfast, it’s an eight-ounce serving with another fruit option on the side so that they are getting enough fruit to count as a meal.

Current: What have been some of your most gratifying moments in Frankfort as a food service director?

Noffsinger: I was truly touched this year when I received a pile of hand-painted and hand-written notes from all of the fourth graders. I found out later that they were painted using vegetables such as beets! They were ‘thank you’ notes listing all of their favorite meals and taste-test items that they had enjoyed. I felt like I had to write back, so my daughter and I painted a big card for them. It never gets old when students at the high school come through the line and say that they love a certain homemade dish, its their favorite. It makes it worth the time that it takes to prepare everything.

Current: What are the biggest remaining challenges facing your effort to introduce more nutritious foods in school?

Noffsinger: The biggest challenges are time, money, and manpower. Since I started working for the school, the food-service staff has been cut in half. The three of us cook and serve breakfast and lunch for about 350 students every day, and we have developed our own routine that works for us. We truly are a team, and we have to help each other everyday to get different things ready for lunch. So we do the best we can, and we are very busy and work very hard. We can see the students really enjoying the healthier items, so we try to make time to put a new thing on the salad bar for them to try or have a different entree on the serving line that wasn’t on the menu. The kids at Frankfort always surprise us with what they try now, and we are hoping more students continue to try new things and continue to grow the program.

To learn more about FoodCorps’s service in Northern Michigan, visit: TraverseCity.Blog.FoodCorps.org.

Photo caption: Jenna Noffsinger, a 2006 Frankfort graduate, just completed her first school year as a full-time food service manager for Frankfort-Elberta Area School District. Photo by Jacob Wheeler.

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