by Dennis Dalman
Families that eat together stay together.
That’s an old adage that Brenda Braulick believes. For years, Braulick has been promoting family togetherness centered around food issues: parents and children grocery-shopping together, gardening together, trying new foods together, cooking together, enjoying at least one daily meal together.
Braulick, food-services director for the Sartell-St. Stephen School District, was recently elected to be president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, whose parent organization is the National School Nutrition Association, with 52,000 members. There are 2,900 members in the Minnesota association. They include food preparers, cooks, servers, managers, cashiers and anybody else associated with the complex daily tasks of serving school lunches.
For the next three years, the association will hold its four-day state conferences each summer in St. Cloud. Members work on many food-related issues, such as food safety, sanitation, new regulations, special dietary needs, customer service and health-department requirements. Food service in a complex world is forever changing, like all other aspects of modern life. Change, in fact, has been a constant in Braulick’s job.
She has worked in Sartell schools’ food-service department since 1999, but she has been in the food-service business much longer – since 1987. Braulick is in charge of a staff of 52, who serve about 2,800 lunches every day in Sartell’s two elementary schools, its middle school and high school and its Early Education program in the District Services Building.
After being elected president of the state association, Braulick was quick to credit her staff for recognition that she receives.
“They work very hard,” she said. “Some do not know how much hard work goes into food preparation and service. There is a lot of lifting required, and it’s very hot work. It’s very physical work. Our staff is excellent.”
Braulick said her presidency will give her many opportunities.
“It’s exciting because I’ll have the opportunity to help make the organization even better,” she said. “And I’ll have an opportunity to promote education, especially about school nutrition and enhancing the public perception of the importance of nutrition.”
The foundation of school food service, Braulick said, is to help kids feel welcome, to encourage parents and grandparents to eat school lunches with children, to learn to cook and eat together and to constantly try new foods.
Braulick’s job is exceedingly complex, requiring her to juggle many factors that include food safety, nutritional knowledge, the search for high-quality products and careful attention to federal and state guidelines and mandates.
One of her constant challenges is to get students to try new foods. Variety, as Braulick well knows, is one of the key components to good nutrition. Throughout the years, Braulick and her staff have frequently added new foods and food combinations to the menu, always trying to decrease fats, sugar and salt without making foods bland or unexciting. Braulick has learned the value of patience. It takes time, she said, for some foods to “catch on” with children, some of whom can be finicky eaters. However, year by year, students are indeed starting to like foods – such as more “exotic” vegetables – they once thought they hated. Braulick is never happier when students start liking foods and their new likings become part of their families’ meals. She is keenly aware of the connection between school lunches and at-home family nutrition. In fact, that is her major goal: wise food choices and good nutrition as prime components of a lifelong – and generational – tradition.
The process of food education is never-ending, and sometimes it can be a struggle. Last year, for instance, schools had to start preparing meals using federal mandates and guidelines that limit the amount of calories allowed per meal. Some students thought the meals were not filling enough. Some dropped out of the food program. This year, Braulick noted, school-lunch participation is getting back to where it once was.
Also this year, new federal standards have been introduced for school breakfasts, similar to those put in place for lunches last year. So far, students seem not to have complained about the changes, Braulick noted.
Constant innovation is the name of the game in school food service. Braulick has been on the cutting edge of innovation and program development, constantly “tweaking” lunches and service. The latest innovation is the “Rainbow Veggie Bar” in schools. Seven to eight brightly colored vegetables are available each day from dark green to bright red. The kinds of vegetables are rotated daily and can include spinach, romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, bell peppers of all colors, diced sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans, radishes, corn and “exotic” choices such as jicama. Students can eat as many vegetables as they want.
“We’re having good luck with the Rainbow Veggie Bar in the elementary schools,” Braulick said. “We’re having pretty good luck with it in the middle school. In the high school, students aren’t quite as excited about it.”
However, as Braulick has learned: patience, patience.
Other programs that Braulick has introduced, developed or adapted to Sartell schools are the following:
Farm to School
The “Farm-to-School” program makes available to students food produced on area farms – items such as corn, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, bell peppers and tomatoes. Currently, the food program is purchasing produce from Baker’s Acres in Avon.
The food-waste recycling program makes it possible to use thrown-out food to feed pigs at a hog operation at Berthold Farms in St. Francis, Anoka County. The food is picked up at the school and hauled to the farm. One good sign, Braulick said, is the amount of thrown-out food has not increased.
Chef in School
A Chef-in-School program invites local chefs into the schools to give advice and hands-on know-how for recipe development, culinary skills and other ways to brighten lunches. The chef from last year moved from the area, but Braulick said she will soon try to start the program again with a new chef or chefs.
Each year, a number of interns from Iowa State University are rotated at Sartell schools, where they give dietary tips and work and learn with the cooking staff.
This year, Braulick and her staff have started a “From Scratch” program. They are trying to make more meal entrees using fresh ingredients. For example, fresh chicken breasts are either dry-rubbed with herbs or marinated before baking to make them tasty, with less sodium. It’s another one of Braulick’s efforts to make foods delicious and nutritious.
Born and raised in Montevideo, Braulick worked as a nursing-home aide, then did at-home daycare before deciding to study food-service management at Alexandria Technical College, starting in 1980. It was there she met her husband-to-be, Michael, who is vice president of St. Cloud Industrial Products.
The Braulicks, who live in St. Augusta, have two children – Justin Braulick, an attorney with the Dan Eller law firm in Waite Park; and Jessica Braulick, a registered nurse in the Twin Cities. The Braulicks have three grandchildren – well, actually four, Braulick is quick to add. Their names are Ava, Jackson, Selah and Gabriel.
“Gabriel is in heaven,” Braulick said. Sadly, he died of a kidney disease before reaching the age of 2.