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Nardin Academy finds a healthy recipe for success in its dining hall

Pasta, salad and grass-fed beef taco bars. Locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. A menu so varied it isn’t repeated for at least 18 days.

This is what Nardin Academy has brought into its former cafeteria – now called its “dining hall” – since Julie Levin arrived at her former high school alma mater two years ago.

Levin also is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She worked as a private chef on the West Coast before she and her husband started a family a half dozen years ago. They moved to Western New York so Levin could take the Nardin job.

“Being back in Western New York and at Nardin is a dream come true,” she said earlier this week as she helped me put together the cover story this weekend about kid-friendly food for WNY Refresh.

I first wrote about the Nardin dining hall in October 2013, shortly after a healthy dining consultant helped the school set up an operation focused on nutritious, scratch-cooked food. The goal was to add healthy cooking and eating into the curriculum – something Levin has relished during her time back home.

That has included the Edible Schoolyard Club, which soon-to-be-senior Kate Quinn wrote about last month in NeXt.

Nardin is blessed to have parents of means, both financial and professional, who have children enrolled at the school. But that doesn’t mean that a greater emphasis on nutrition can work only in such conditions. Westminster Charter School has taken a similar tack with its food service program, as I reported in the 2013 story.

Levin – who had a hectic week teaching summer cooking classes – updated me about how things are going during a couple of breathers this week.

She and her staff feed about 250 scratch-cooked meals a day in an academic setting that includes pre-school and grades K-8 for boys and girls, as well as a girl’s high school. The school offers ala carte dining choices.

“A lot of schools contract out their food service,” Levin said. “I’m an employee of Nardin.”

The approach nods to the notion that giving children the opportunity to learn about and experience good nutrition will set them up for a healthier lifetime.

“It was work the first year establishing the framework and routine of the efficiencies in the kitchen and how we were going to do it,” Levin said.

That means food and waste tracking logs – and an approach based on a “sustainability manifesto” that values seasonal foods that don’t have to be transported from Central and South America or overseas.

“I would rather buy local and know the farmer I’m buying from,” Levin said.

With a sustainable environment in mind, the school hired a “green coordinator” and got grant money for a “learning garden” from Tops, the Captain Planet Foundation and Dole Foods. It’s part of a larger nutrition curriculum.

“We’re trying to turn the learning garden into an outdoor classroom,” Levin said.

Levin, the students and her staff help connect the dots – literally – in a dinning hall map that pictures New York State and where some of the products that land on meal plates come from.

“People like the narrative,” said Levin, who takes photos while in the field buying produce from farm vendors and posts them on the map.

She also works to stretch the palates of her young charges by offering samples of foods that she toys with adding to the school menu. She is pleased with the growing willingness of students to open their minds, and their mouths.

Nicole Klem, director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at Trocaire College, isn’t surprised.

Nardin, she said, has pulled together all of the ingredients to create a nutritional system that can serve as a model for other schools – and households.

“Anyone who says they’ve got a challenge with their kids is not inviting them into the kitchen and making meals with them,” Klem said.

The payoff, it seems, is infectious.

“Word on the street," Levin said, "is that kids know Nardin has the good food.”

Sixth-graders Tess Shanahan, left, and Abby Gioia and fifth-grader Shea Hartman stir pureed strawberries with local honey over the stove in the Nardin Academy kitchen this week as they make strawberry leather, a sort of fruit roll-up. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Sixth-graders Tess Shanahan, left, and Abby Gioia and fifth-grader Shea Hartman stir pureed strawberries with local honey over the stove in the Nardin Academy kitchen this week as they make strawberry leather, a sort of fruit roll-up. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh

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