Most Popular Menu Item: Chicken and Waffles with Wild Blueberry Dipping Sauce
Jeanne Reilly started her career in the food service sector and was a commercial baker before moving into nutrition. For the last 25 years, she has worked in school nutrition programs, and is now the Director of School Nutrition at Maine’s RSU 14 Windham/Raymond School District (K-12). Reilly is known for her passion for child nutrition and has been recognized many times in Maine for her work in nutrition policy, education, and research within the state.
At RSU14, she has defined a clear mission for the school nutrition program and measures its success against the following principles: “Feeding students delicious and nutritious food so that they are healthy and ready to learn; Getting students excited and engaged in eating healthy, delicious food; Inspiring children and their families to eat healthy, nutritious food at school and at home.”
Wild Blueberries: A Local Superstar Ingredient All Schools Can Access
To achieve these values, over the last 12 years, Reilly has gradually moved her team to more scratch cooking and sourcing as many local ingredients as possible.
One local ingredient Reilly likes to serve her students is wild blueberries. She gets them through the USDA Foods Program, and they are on the menu every week. “I order 12 to 18 cases (360-540 lbs.) every month to keep it on our menu on a regular basis.”
Wild blueberries are a wild, place-based food from Maine that resulted following the retreat of the glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. Maine is the only state in the U.S. with significant commercial production of this wild crop. Unlike ordinary blueberries, wild blueberries are not planted. Instead, they are indigenous (1 of 3 native North American fruits) and spread naturally where Mother Nature put them, with thousands of genetically different varieties in every field.
Reilly’s love of wild blueberries solidified during her time as a commercial baker for food establishments along the Maine coast where she baked hundreds of dozens of wild blueberry muffins. Today, she takes her love of wild blueberries and brings it to her students. Wild blueberries are on the menu weekly for both breakfast and lunch offerings. Many of the menu items are quick grab-and-go, made-from-scratch items, like wild blueberry muffins, wild blueberry muffin tops, and yogurt parfaits.
“Nothing tastes better than a fresh, warm wild blueberry muffin,” says Reilly. “Anytime you bake something for the kids, they really love it. You can smell it throughout the building, that warm blueberry and cinnamon spice aroma. The kids are all about it. It’s tasty. It’s delicious. It’s a treat. It’s a big hit.”
Wild blueberry yogurt parfaits are a daily staple on the district’s menus. According to Reilly, the parfaits are especially popular with the middle and high school students. Reilly and her team have developed a significant grab-and-go operation to meet the older students where they are. “We make the parfaits a meal. They have enough yogurt to count as the meat or meat alternative. They have enough fruit to count for the fruit component. And then we top them with homemade granola to add fiber.”
Chicken and Waffles with Wild Blueberry Dipping Sauce
One of the most popular items on the menu is the chicken and waffles with a wild blueberry dipping sauce. The recipe is served K-12 but originated six years ago in a high school health class. The students were learning about school meal programs and had to plan a meal with cost, nutrition components and marketing in mind. The students taste tested it with their peers and marketed it on social media. It was a kid pleaser from its first introduction. After that, Reilly put it on the menu and it’s now a regular favorite. “There’s not a month that goes by without it being on the menu,” she notes.
“There’s not a month that goes by without this recipe being on the menu,” Reilly notes. “The wild blueberry dipping sauce is a hands-down favorite district wide K through 12. We use it instead of syrup for kids to dip their waffles into. It’s tasty and the kids are getting part of their fruit component,” says Reilly.
Wild Blueberries: Nutrition, Cost and Menu Versatility Benefits
Not only do the kids love how wild blueberries taste, but they offer so many other benefits. Wild blueberries provide powerful nutrition. “Wild blueberries are one of the best and healthiest fruits you can get,” says Reilly. Wild blueberries are high in fiber, lower in sugar and have 33% more deep purply blue anthocyanins and 2x the antioxidants of ordinary blueberries, contributing to a healthy brain. Recent health research found significant positive effects on memory, decision-making, response times, concentration, and mood when children consumed a wild blueberry beverage.
Wild blueberries also have a higher yield than cultivated blueberries making them a cost-efficient ingredient for schools. “With my order, I’m getting 25% more servings per pound than I would with cultivated blueberries,” she notes. “Plus, wild blueberries deliver great flavor and are perfect for baking. Wild blueberries translate better into baked products because they are smaller, providing more berries per bite, and they don’t leave those big holes that cultivated blueberries do in baked products. Additionally, wild blueberries are a frozen product and aren’t perishable like fresh fruit, so they’re always good to have on hand.”
Finally, Reilly stated that wild blueberries offer school nutrition programs great menu flexibility. “You can bake with them, put them in yogurt, make sauces and salad dressings, and you can even serve them in a partially frozen state. We put them on our salad bars every day partially frozen in little cups. The kids love them just like that. You don’t even have to do any work if you don’t want to.”
Feeding Students Flows to Feeding Families
“You know you’re doing something right when parents email me to tell me that their son or daughter enjoyed a particular menu item that day and then ask for the recipe. It’s great that kids are going home and talking about what they’re eating at school and wanting the recipes. In that case, you’re not only feeding children, but you’re also educating families. You’re getting them cooking and using real ingredients. You’re keeping those families engaged and building trust with them for your school meal programs.”
Tell your buyer! Wild Blueberries are available via USDA Foods in 32 states. USDA Foods #100243 for a 30lb case or USDA Foods #100242 for a 24lb case. Make sure you are ordering WILD blueberries! If you don’t see Wild Blueberries on your state order list, contact [email protected].