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LHUSD school chefs aim to create meals that are both tasty and nutritious

 Visiting chef Brian Renz (right) serves a helping of Brazilian stew to a LHHS student at lunchtime.
Visiting chef Brian Renz (right) serves a helping of Brazilian stew to a LHHS student at lunchtime.

As every parent knows, coming up with healthier and more interesting meal options for kids every day is a challenge. Some youngsters prefer spicy, others want savory and heaven help the households with picky eaters.

So imagine what the food service folks are up against in the Lake Havasu Unified School District. They are charged with serving 3,000 meals a day — breakfast and lunch — to the district’s 5,400 students. Between kids’ fussy palates, budget constraints and federal nutrition mandates, serving meals to children that they’ll eat and enjoy is a tall order.

The district’s food service director Christopher Gallaga said the process is not as daunting as one might think because his company relies on deep experience, science and thoroughly understanding kids’ preferences to get the job done well.

Gallaga works for Taher, a Minnesota-based food service company that feeds students at schools in 19 states. Taher has been servicing the local school district for five years.

Still, a lot of thought goes into menu items, Gallaga said. To that end, Taher sent one of its corporate chefs, Brian Renz, to Havasu for a few days. Renz is spending the week at district schools to talk to students, the food service team and to serve up new recipes.

On Wednesday, Renz was at Lake Havasu High School to dish out feijoada to the lunch crowd. Nicknamed “Brazilian stew,” the concoction of sausage, beef, beans, bacon and pork was served over “crazy rice.” Students told a visitor that the meal was “interesting” and “good.”

The jolly Renz seemed to enjoy greeting the students and encouraging them to try the new menu item. Many enthusiastically accepted the offer; Renz was enjoying the high participation.

Standing at a distance and observing Renz interact with students, Gallaga said Taher and the local school district were a good fit because the two share similar philosophies about feeding children.

“The district doesn’t want cheap and easy. They want nutritious, quality food for their students,” Gallaga said. “Our tagline is ‘nourishing the minds of the future’ because that’s what we are doing here. They want chef-created food for the schools.”

Gallaga said he occasionally visits the schools to educate students about taste and nutrition.

“Food is an education tool. I took some red peppers to the elementaries – the peppers were chopped up very fine - and let the students sample them. For many, it was first time they’d tasted a pepper,” he said.

Younger elementary students tend to prefer beige food, which is why Gallaga and his team work to add color to the kids’ food, to make it more appealing.

Elementary students are the hardest to please because of the wide age range – 5 to 12 years old.

“Young kids like soft textures and comfort food. We introduce them to new flavors when we can. We try to expand their horizons in food. It’s not easy, but we do come up with some field goal choices,” he said. “Middle school students are crazy about spicy foods.”

At the high school cafeteria, the “flavor station” is a popular stop for students who want to amp up their food with low-salt seasonings.

“The buffalo spice is very popular and – oh, look, we’re out of lemon pepper. We’ll need to refill that because the kids really like it, too,” Gallaga said as he surveyed the flavor selections.

“Nachos are really popular. We try to dial in our menus for a Southwest palate.”

Knowing what kids like to eat is a specialty that visiting chef Renz has perfected. He travels the nation from his home in Minnesota, visiting schools that are Taher’s clients. He has been in the school food service business since 1999.

“In September, I had 35,000 frequent flier miles with Delta. So yes, I travel a lot,” he smiled.

Cooking shows on TV and shows such as “Junior Master Chef” have increased youngsters’ interest in different foods, Renz said.

“Nationwide, kids like a lot of heat,” he said of older students. “But kids in kindergarten through fourth grade have uber-sensitive taste buds. They want more buttery flavors, cheese and sweetness. They prefer savory to salty.”

He’s also observed that lunchtime is very social for the younger set.

“They want to be with their friends and talk. In some schools, I’ve seen where the adults have to announce that it’s quiet time so the kids will stop talking and eat. Otherwise, they’ll keep talking and never eat.”

Grades five through junior high are open-minded and adventurous about food, he said.

“They’re ready to knock it up a notch and try more things,” Renz said.

Regional difference are quite noticeable, he said. Kids in the Midwest enjoy casserole-type dishes. But not Southwest students. Havasu students don’t much care for fish, either.

“Fish is more popular in places like Texas or other Gulf Coast states,” Renz said. “Here in Havasu, the kids prefer spicy foods, Tex-Mex, things like that.”


By Pam Ashley, Today's News-Herald
Feb 6, 2019

Lake Havasu Unified School District does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, marital status, or disability in admission to its programs,
services, or activities, in access to them, in treatment of individuals, or in any aspect of their operations. More in English | Spanish.

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