Interview with Penny Parham, Administrative Director, Department of Food & Nutrition, Miami-Dade Public Schools

Tomorrow, Phillis Wheatley Elementary will discover what the future of healthy school lunch tastes like when its students are served Grilled Rosemary Chicken Chopped Salad, a recipe conceived by fourth grader Gerald Johnson Jr. in partnership with chef Michael.

And this won’t be like previous instances, where the chef has prepped healthy dishes at the restaurant for his kids participating in Chefs Move to Schools to sample.

This time, with support of Miami-Dade Public Schools Department of Food and Nutrition and its Administrative Director Penny Parham, lunch will be prepared out of the Phillis Wheatley cafeteria, by cafeteria staff using ingredients sourced from the school system supply chain which are becoming increasingly infused with produce from local farms.  Channel 10 will be there to capture it all for a segment airing during the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, February 24 to 27.

Penny is the framer of the “Chef Partnership” program that brings together local chefs to inspire her staff and students “to elevate cooking and eating at school and to model success for students and staff in the area of culinary arts.”  On Friday she invited Michael to join fellow participating chefs Michelle Bernstein and Frank Gianetti at the district-wide Food Service Managers’ Meeting, its 2nd annual day of Health and Wellness featuring the first on-campus Farmer’s Market at North Miami Senior High School.  Getting the food service managers from all schools throughout the district together to rally behind the chefs’ positive contributions to improving the health of the community is a key component to its success.  It was a great morning, with great people — and even a moment to learn relaxation techniques.  We can all use those!

We’ve really enjoyed working with Penny, especially announcing the Salad Bars Move to Schools program with the First Lady of the United States, and wanted to get to know her a little better, like how she found her calling.  She kindly obliged our request for an interview.  I think you’ll enjoy reading her answers, below.  Keep up the good work Penny!

The chefs flanked by Penny Parham (second from right) and Erin Healy (far left) of Youth L.E.A.D., who has just been hired by MDPS to forge connections with local farmers and infuse their products into the school cafeteria supply chain.

1.) What grade would you give MDPS if the nation’s public school systems were in a class called “keeping our children healthy & eating well at school”?

A solid “A”. Miami-Dade Schools has been at the forefront in school wellness policies for years – from removing carbonated beverages and trans-fats to innovative physical education programs – to create an environment that improves student’s health at school. In fact, just this past Friday, President Bill Clinton selected Miami-Dade Schools to announce new agreements with large food manufacturers and purchasing cooperatives – brokered by his foundation – to reduce fat, sodium, sugar and added calories in food processed for school meal programs. President Clinton said , quote “ If every school district had the dedication they have here in Miami-Dade County, we would have a very bright future.” Miami-Dade is truly committed – from the Superintendent to the Board to our teachers and food service staff to keep our students healthy and eating well at school.

2.) I’m sure Mrs. Obama’s visit was one of your career highlights. How did it feel to introduce her to your children at Riverside and what was accomplished by her visit?

Introducing the First Lady was a true honor! I could not have been prouder for our district, our staff, our students and community partners to host the event for Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign. Her visit highlighted that it takes all of us working together to change the environment for our kids – and it takes our kids making the healthy choices for themselves. A friend of mine and her 8 year old daughter were watching the news coverage of the First Lady at Riverside Elementary and from the TV, Mrs. Obama says “ Kids- put down the potato chips and pick up the carrot sticks” and her daughter did exactly that! Inspiring kids to do what is best for themselves and creating the opportunity for them to do it – that is the real impact from the First Lady’s visit.

3.) What three words best describe your team including Carol Chong & Susan Rothstein?

Smart. Dedicated. Inspired.

Along with Carol and Susan, the entire team at Food and Nutrition is phenomenal. Our staff is responsible for managing a $154 million annual budget; over 300,000 meals and snacks daily; a fleet of trucks; a document processing center for free meal applications; training and direction for 2800 staff; special grants, daily deliveries, and detailed accountability for federal/state and local regulations in over 352 schools. Carol, Susan and the staff are forward thinking, hard working and experienced professionals that know their business and how to make positive change for our students. They rock!

4.) What you were little, what was your childhood ambition?

To be a writer and to go out to eat! My father was in his father’s restaurant business and my mother was a teacher. I used to write the menus for our home , so I guess the eating and writing went hand in hand. When I was little, I loved going to my grandfather’s restaurant , everything was delicious and the people were so nice to us. Hank the baker, Helen the cashier, Mary our favorite waitress and we always got the corner booth. It was a great place. -bright orange and aqua vinyl booths and a big glass display case for the pies and cakes.

5.) Where did you grow up and what was cafeteria food like then compared to the schools you oversee now? Any favorite or loathed dishes?

I grew up in Miami, went to public schools and bought school lunch every day, until high school when we could leave campus for lunch. I used to buy the boiled eggs and crackers and the orange juice bars were the best – real 100% orange juice. I loved those! My least favorite was the cooked (overcooked) spinach. We used to hide it in the milk carton so we wouldn’t be forced to eat it!

6.) What keeps you going?

Unconditional love from my family, great friends and a supportive work environment. I count my blessings everyday and know I am truly lucky to have the kind of personal and professional support that I do. I love being around the food, the kids and the kitchens and I know our work is meaningful and important.

7.) What inspired the chefs partnership program? What are your goals for their involvement?

A great conversation I had with Kris Wessel, chef/owner of Red Light. We met years back and had common ideas, young kids and a shared passion for good food. He is such a talented chef and true believer in the power of a good , fresh meal. I met Ken Lyon of Fratelli -Lyon, and he expressed an interest to work with our schools. Michelle Bernstein’s name was always popping up – not just from her Food Network stardom, but her community involvement. She introduced us to Frank Jeannetti of Essenssia at the Palms Hotel and Spa. I asked and they all said yes – it came together perfectly.

Last week, Michael, Michelle and Frank addressed all our food service managers at our county-wide meeting – standing up for the work our staff do each day. The Chef Partnership has given us real recipes and hands-on skills, and motivation and excitement to introduce new foods and tastes. I also hope that the Chefs see the challenges of school lunch program as opportunities to help us continue to change the environment for our kids. The response has been tremendous.

8.)What has been the most surprising result of the program so far?

The genuine teamwork with the Chefs and our Staff. The visit by the First lady was a high profile example of the kind of results we get when these Chefs, Susan, Carol and our school staff come together in the kitchen.

9.)What’s your claim to fame in the kitchen?

I can’t think of one specific dish – but I can pull together a nice balanced meal. I really enjoy a beautiful table, a well -presented meal and great company.

10.) If you could cook Michelle a dish, and Michael a dish, what would you serve them?

For Michelle, I would make dessert – a delicious, hot fruit compote. Dried apricots, apples, pears , golden raisins, pineapple and cherries soaked in Manichevitz wine overnight. Baked until bubbly hot. It is warm, sweet and delicious! For Michael, I would cook fresh black grouper – speared by my brother-in-law. Pan sear the grouper in olive oil, butter and juice from sour or blood oranges. Then sauté shallots, shredded carrots, zucchini, leeks, and squash, or other fresh vegetables . Finish the grouper in the oven and top with the sautéed vegetables. Simply great.

11.) What do you think kids want from their school cafeterias?

It is a myth that kids only want chicken nuggets and pizza – those are popular items, but kids crave fresh food, ripe fruit, crunchy vegetables and fresh sandwiches. They also love casseroles and rice dishes and spicy foods. Kids also want a relaxing environment where they can get good, fresh food and have time to talk with their friends.

12.) What people do you look to for inspiration — who are the heroes at the intersection of food and education?

Alice Waters is an American Icon at the intersection of food and education.. She really made an impact on me with her Edible School Yard and work in Berkley. And my amazing mom – the teacher – she is a Southern hostess who you can’t leave her house without something to eat – and she makes the world’s greatest fried chicken.

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