The director of food services and nutrition for the school district is bringing fresh flavors and more meals to schools throughout Austin.
Story and photos by Sarah Holcomb
When most adults think cafeteria food, slabs of ketchup-slathered meatloaf, square pizza slices or canned peaches might come to mind. But on cafeteria lines within the Austin Independent School District, students have access to dishes such as tamales and banh mi sandwiches instead of casseroles and fruit cocktails. Since taking over as director of food services and nutrition for AISD two years ago, Anneliese Tanner has defined her mission: provide healthy, tasty food for all.
Trading her finance career for food policy, Tanner set out to improve food quality, access and environmental sustainability.
“I really want to create a healthy, fair food system, and I think that school food is the way to do it,” she says.
In New York, Tanner sold oysters to famous chefs on Food Network and traded seafood between Asia and the U.S. Working in high-volume food distribution gave Tanner a little taste of her current job: overseeing an operation that serves 83,000 students every day.
What’s for Lunch?
The school-wide menus Tanner and her team invent pair tried-and- true favorites like mac ’n’ cheese, pizza and chicken fingers with new cooked-from- scratch recipes, so kids always have a choice and something they want to eat.
Take the create-your- own berry salad: The selection of fresh toppings includes not only juicy berries, but not-so- familiar beets and watermelon radishes. Such dishes are part of Tanner’s effort to give kids a chance to find new favorite foods.
“We’ve had kids who’ve never had hummus before. And we hear, ‘Well, kids don’t eat hummus,’” Tanner says. “They certainly can’t eat it if we don’t provide it for them and let them taste it, try it and make that decision on their own.”
In her efforts, Tanner invented a mantra: The cafeteria is the classroom. It speaks to the idea that food provides not only sustenance and energy, she explains, but an opportunity to teach kids about nutrition, how the food system works and seasonal produce, all while exposing them to cultural cuisines that reflect Austin’s diverse community.
For example, AISD’s new Nacho Average food truck, which serves Austin-area high schools, dresses up classics with global flavors, fruits and veggies. Its menu has featured Mexican street tacos and burgers with international influences, including a Vietnamese burger with pineapple chutney.
Food for All
Tanner’s work extends beyond menu planning to address significant hunger and poverty problems affecting many kids throughout AISD. Every day, one in four children in Travis County doesn’t know where his or her next meal will come from. To try to ensure all kids have access to three meals a day, Tanner has expanded in-classroom breakfast and after-school meals provided by AISD.
She grew Breakfast in the Classroom from two programs in 2015 to 30 campuses last year, and plans to reach 44 this fall. Eventually, she hopes to roll the program out to all 114 AISD campuses. While most Breakfast in the Classroom programs nationwide are of the heat-and-serve variety, there’s nothing baked in a wrapper in AISD. This is one way in which Tanner is improving food quality and including sustainable, locally grown ingredients and from-scratch cooking. AISD cooks roll their own kolaches, layer parfaits and cook up breakfast sandwiches with local eggs. This fall, AISD will debut seasonal smoothies, along with its chia bar and omelets, which were introduced last year.
But it’s not simple; from-scratch cooking requires detailed organization and multi-day recipes.
“We can’t just come in at 6 a.m. and scratch cook 2,800 breakfasts that morning and be ready to go,” Tanner explains.
In fact, simply providing fresh fruit three days a week for breakfast in the classroom is a “pretty big deal,” according to Tanner. Serving a single elementary school could require sourcing and slicing enough watermelon for 2,500 breakfasts.
Nutritious and Delicious
When it comes to ensuring the integrity of ingredients, AISD makes straight As. Government nutrition standards mandate cafeterias offer low-fat or fat-free milk, water, fruit and vegetables at each meal, serve mostly whole grains and stay within sodium, calorie and fat limits. Tanner has overhauled the district’s food sourcing to exceed these requirements. In alliance with the Clean Label initiative, she’s eliminating the so-called harmful seven altogether: high-fructose corn syrup, trans fat and hydrogenated oils, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial preservatives and bleached flour. The district currently serves 80 percent clean-label food and will reach 100 percent by next fall.
“I like things to be done fast!” Tanner says, snapping her fingers. “I think our kids should have the best quality food and there’s no reason why we should delay that whatsoever.”
Big-box suppliers have removed high-fructose corn syrup from jelly and ketchup for AISD. Austin’s Fiesta Tortillas supplies custom tortillas, while Texas French Bread prepares the district’s hot-dog buns.
Tanner also works with local farms like Johnson’s Backyard Garden to plan out crops and maximize fresh, local produce. A garden-to-café program uses greens planted in on-campus gardens on cafeteria menus, teaching kids about the math and science behind the process and allowing them to taste the results on the tray.
Last year, salads surprisingly stole the show, with 130,000 sold throughout the district’s elementary schools at new twice-a- week salad bars. Some elementary schools even sold more salads than pizza on pizza day, Tanner says, with 15 to 30 percent of AISD students choosing salads as their main dish. This fall, kids at all grade levels can choose the salad-bar option every day.
“Seeing a kid eating our meals and being happy about the meal they’re eating is the most fulfilling thing,” Tanner says. “Who’s not going to be excited about that?”