Table Chat Jessica Das
| Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When it comes to feeding families, Jessica Das knows getting healthy foods is just part of the battle. People need to know how to cook, too.
That’s part of the goal behind the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program with Milwaukee Public Schools’ Department of Nutrition Services. To help families make the most of produce bags provided weekly, Das created a companion series of weekly online instructional cooking videos and posts them on YouTube. (Search for YouTube and Milwaukee Public Schools.)
Das grew up struggling with health and stomach problems, which led her to become a dietitian. She’s now a dietitian associate 3, and she’s been with MPS since 2013.
Highlighting themes each week, produce bags have included everything from onions, garlic, tomatoes, mushrooms and avocado to dragonfruit, turmeric, fresh coconuts, pomegranate and golden berries.
Produce bags with “superfoods for super kids” are available once a week when school is in session while the grant runs, as part of meal distribution at Stop Grab and Go locations. The next distribution will be Dec. 3, and Das will teach families to use arugula and fennel, plus a homemade salad dressing.
Question: How did you get started in the world of food and nutrition?
Answer: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease, at 14. It affected how I ate, how I felt. I became very interested in foods and what I could eat. This mission for helping people be healthier is what I’m rooted in since high school.
Q: What does a dietitian do for MPS? What is your role within school meal programs?
A: We actually have multiple supervising dietitians, each one supervises something different. My role has changed over the years. Right now, I’ve found a niche in grant writing, project planning and rollout, to get meals improved for kids at MPS. My other specialty is farm to school and sustainability initiatives.
Q: How did your involvement in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program come about? How is it different with MPS currently virtual?
A: The district has been a part of this for many years. When school is in-class, we were giving out 1 to 2 ounces of an unusual ingredient. Teachers could hand out samples and information. When schools went virtual, we had to get really creative to get the foods into homes …
We had to allow for waivers to allow parents to pick up, and that all kids could receive the bag, because normally it is kindergarten through (grade) 8.
I’ve been seeing a trend in food delivery and meal kits and bundles, so I thought it would be great to write recipes for kids to use the produce they’re receiving.
Q: Who is this food program open to?
A: Right now ,it is for children 18 years old and younger, and they don’t have to be an MPS student.
Q: What are the expectations and hopes with this program?
A: We hope to get fresh produce to families. They’re struggling right now and we know some living a food desert. … The only way they can access that is through the Stop Grab and Go locations, there are 50 of them. It is really important to me to get healthy food to people so they can be healthy.
Q: What made you start online videos featuring cooking instruction?
A: It was actually a co-worker’s idea. We were having a staff meeting about launching this fresh fruit and produce program. I told them about the recipes and packages …
The very first time I got behind the camera, I had a lot of fun. The first time, it was just my co-worker, but then the communications department sent a videographer. Every week, we film a video. I think kids should be in the kitchen immediately. My 2-year-old is in the kitchen with me daily. Having that skill in the kitchen will go with you forever.
Q: What else do you want people to know about the work you do?
A: Sometimes our hours are hard. Normal distribution happens from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (on school days). We do have three sites with evening distribution: North Division, 1011 W. Center St.; South Division, 1515 W. Lapham Blvd.; and Obama, 5075 N. Sherman Blvd. They can always send a friend to pick up food. They just need to provide the child’s name and school name.
My hope is more people take advantage of this. These kits are about five pounds per bag. I picked out recipes for families that are really simple, because I want kids in the kitchen.
Q: What do people misunderstand or get wrong about school meal programs, particularly within MPS?
A: They don’t know how much we care. We’re constantly trying to make improvements. We partnered with Life Time (Foundation), and we’ve recently removed the harmful seven (trans fats and hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, hormones and antibiotics, processed and artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial preservatives, and bleached flour) from our breakfast program. We’re continuing to remove that from our other items as well.
Q: Is there a most popular recipe from the MPS meal program?
A: Mock chicken leg is still a hit. Every time that is on the menu, that is something lots of kids want.
Q: How has the pandemic and virtual schooling shifted your approach? Are you feeding more people or less?
A: Nationwide, there are less children being fed through the school food and breakfast programs. We know the need didn’t go away. That’s why we’re doing the best we can to get creative right now. We also want to make it as safe as possible, so we’re using our central kitchen to create pre-packed meals.
Q: How many kids are fed through MPS?
A: Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve fed about 1.7 million meals to children.
Q: How do you address different dietary needs, from food allergies to personal preferences?
A: I’m actually in charge of that as well. I help with special dietary needs for the district. On the school nutrition and lunch menus, when families go (online) to learn about the Stop Grab and Go locations, there is a link with seven different languages available. They can click on whatever language they speak and they can pick up a meal that works for them with their dietary or religious restriction.
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