Denise Kater operates with simple goals.

As the food service director of USD 253 Emporia Public Schools, Kater is the person in command of meals served to students across the entire district. She is always searching for new ways to improve on the breakfast and lunch menus her nine school’s have to offer.

Sometimes, the enhancements are small, like when Kater’s cafeterias began serving Rice Chex, a cereal with no added sugar. But other times, the upgrades are a bit more significant. One such boost came earlier this month when the district announced a partnership with the Life Time Foundation that will feed just under $100,000 into the district’s food service program.

The partnership is the most extensive improvement that has been made to the food service program under Kater, and she and the foundation believe it will be a transformative step inside lunch rooms throughout the district.

“It’s really simple for me,” Kater said. “This is an opportunity to get better and more nutritious foods to the kids in Emporia Schools. That’s why we’re all here. We love our kids.”

The agreement, announced on Sept. 4, has the potential to exponentially improve the food students in Emporia find on their lunch trays for years to come. Under the partnership, the foundation has committed $80,000 in direct funding to the district’s school food program over the next three years.

The collaboration is intended to introduce healthy, “clean label” foods and ingredients into menus and meals and to increase scratch cooking as a means to remove highly-processed foods from school meals. In addition to the funding, Kater’s team will also receive assistance from Life Time Nutrition Project Manager Megan Flynn and Consulting Chef Kent Getzin.

The announcement of the partnership also arrived with an immediate grant of $17,460 to the district, a donation made possible by 120 Garmin DK athletes who chose to donate their registration fees from the canceled cycling event to the schools. The grant will be used for COVID-19 relief and purchases of items such as personal protective equipment.

For Kater and the entire district, those immediate funds are crucial in continuing to fight COVID-19.

“When COVID-19 hit, Denise and her team, just as much as any other school district around the country, had to start buying PPE and other COVID-related items,” Life Time Foundation Senior Program Manager Valeria La Rosa said. “That’s when the organizers of the race decided to give their riders the option to donate their registration fees to support the local school district as they were trying to make sure no child went hungry and to protect the staff.”

While Emporia schools continue to fight the spread of the virus, Kater and her food service team are looking to the future under their new partnership.

A growing partnership

The Life Time Foundation and Emporia schools became acquainted after Life Time Fitness brought DK, Emporia’s annual gravel cycling event, into its family in 2018. By the spring of 2019, La Rosa and the foundation were already communicating with Kater, and for the past two years, the district and the foundation have worked together in forming this new partnership.

Since 2011, the Life Time Foundation has partnered with 25 schools across 13 states and impacted more 1.5 million students with their efforts in improving school lunches. At the core of the foundation’s project is to eliminate what it calls the “harmful-7”, a group of processed or artificial ingredients, from meals served in school cafeterias. A primary component in eliminating those ingredients like trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup is a shift away from easy-to-produce, convenience meals and an embrace of scratch cooking.

It’s a plan aimed at not only allowing students to eat healthier, but also to eat better.

“We want kids to eat more fresh foods and vegetables, and the more you do scratch cooking, the more you control your ingredients.” La Rosa said.

The $80,000 the foundation has committed will allow Kater to overhaul the district’s food services program. With the funds, Emporia schools will not only be able to invest in new kitchen equipment and staff training, but it will also receive time with Flynn and Getzin — the dietician and chef who make the Life Time Foundation’s project truly work.

As chief nutritionist, Flynn will serve as the catalyst to get the project rolling. Having already visited Emporia several times, Flynn will be tasked with working with Kater and the Emporia food services team to evaluate the ingredients and food labels involved in the meals, seeking out harmful ingredients to be phased out. With that assessment, Flynn and Kater will formulate a plan to move forward.

“Our goal is to get our kids some more healthy, nutritious options and something that they’re interested in that isn’t just the traditional chicken nuggets,” Kater said. “Anytime we can get healthy foods into our kids’ hands, that’s truly amazing.”

Once Flynn’s work is done, Getzin will assume maybe the most difficult challenge: taking those good, healthy ingredients and actually making them taste good. With 40-years of experience in the culinary world, Getzin has built a name for himself in the industry of school food services since leaving the restaurant kitchen and began working with the Life Time Foundation several years ago.

With the information relayed to him by Flynn and Kater, Getzin will work with the district, its kitchen staff and its students on constructing a menu of healthy items and scratch recipes that maintain mass appeal. In hands-on training sessions with the district’s cooking staff, Getzin will work on techniques to equip the staff with applicable skills that will allow them to cook from scratch and continue to expand and broaden the breakfast and lunch menus with new recipes and quality ingredients.

By Year 3, the cafeteria’s across the district should be entirely different.

“Up to this point, Life Time has amassed quite a large variety of ingredients that are clean label and easily incorporated into school menus,” Getzin said. “So once we figure out what the students like and don’t like, we can work with the staff and continue to develop recipes around this wide-range of ingredients until we complete a menu that works.”

For Kater and the entire Emporia School District, the partnership offers promise and innovation for the future. In the coming years, students who come through its cafeterias can expect healthier, more nutritious meals and an enhanced quality of food on their trays. According to Kater, her kitchen staff is already eager and waiting for the opportunity to hone their skills under Getzin’s guidance.

For Emporia’s schools, its students and the Life Time Foundation, the partnership promises to be a win-win.

“This is life changing,” Kater said. “We’re getting hungry just reading through the recipes. We’re really going to be able to kick things up a notch. I think the kids are in for a big treat. I hope they’re as excited as we are.”

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