Transforming the World of School Dining

It’s wonderful to have Emily Burson, RD, on my Plant Chat today. The founder and president of School Nutrition Plus (SNP), Emily has been pushing the envelope of school dining since 2009. After managing school kitchens where the definition of cooking meant opening a box of frozen food and putting it in the oven, Emily’s relentless desire to serve kids real food and teach them where it comes from drove her to start SNP. Having worked with professionally trained chefs, she’s widely recognized for leading culinary teams, and is responsible for the overall direction of SNP, which employs more than 100 team members. One of Emily’s greatest joys is tasting the creative food that the chefs at SNP come up with while working within tight budget and nutrition constraints. In Spring 2018, Emily, alongside her business partner and SNP’s executive chef, Brandon Neumen, launched their cookbook, A Chef Walks Into a Cafeteria…: Healthy Family Recipes From California’s Premier School Food Company to honor the flavor values of scratch cooking and inspire families to cook together with recipes actually served in the school cafeteria! I had the privilege of reviewing her book and writing a review of it before it was published.

Want to learn more about SNP? You can follow Emily on Instagram and Twitter to get the latest scoop on school nutrition, delicious recipes, and book launch dates. In the meantime, keep reading to discover Emily’s love for SNP, sustainable eating, and more.

RD Lounge (RDL): What was the inspiration behind SNP and your book?

Burson: Before starting SNP, I worked for a large foodservice management company at several K-12 districts then ended up overseeing charter school operations. The definition of cooking back then, and still today in some cases, was opening a case of frozen food and heating it in the oven. Parents, students, and administrators wanted healthier food and not a one-size-fits all approach to their foodservice program. SNP was first born to provide menu consulting to schools with kitchens, but as charter schools grew in number and opened in facilities without kitchens, the need for caterers with knowledge of school food operations surfaced. We responded, and now both cook in schools with kitchens and cater to those without. The cookbook A Chef Walks Into a Cafeteria… is a culmination of SNP’s nearly 10 years in business and seeks to make the scratch-cooking trend in schools more approachable to parents, students, and schools. It’s the story of our company along with our recipes scaled down for home use. Often when we introduce healthful foods to students, we’re met with resistance because entrées like mac and cheese or various salads, believe it or not, are not something our students have tried outside of boxed or fast food versions. Our hope with the book is that by introducing these foods at home, students and parents will be more receptive to them at school.

RDL: In which ways is our food system—especially as it relates to children—broken?

Burson: Children don’t know where food comes from. To kids, processed foods, like chicken nuggets or French fries, have become the representation of chicken and potatoes. Some of the kids we serve would probably be shocked to know that pizza contains tomatoes, onions, and garlic. It’s going to take educating families on how to easily and economically make their voices heard by purchasing whole foods vs putting their dollars towards fast food and processed food, and thus commercial farming.

RDL: How can connections with farms and local food impact children’s lives?

Burson: When children grow or somehow participate in the gathering of food, they’re more likely to eat it. In 2011, my friend Mud Baron created a nonprofit urban farm in Pasadena, California, called Muir Ranch that allows teens the opportunity to grow their own food to learn responsibility and other valuable life skills. The farm is thriving and now provides jobs to these kids in the form of a CSA [community supported agriculture] program and most recently a flower design business. Providing opportunities for families to have easy access to fresh produce is key to increasing consumption, and supporting the local economy keeps farmers in business who would otherwise be swallowed up by commercial farms.

RDL: What are some main issues that need to be tackled in school nutrition?

Burson: It’s a constant challenge to prepare tasty, healthful, and compliant meals with a little over a dollar to spend per student. This relates to another issue that I mention above about the need to move to scratch cooking from heat and serve. The lack of excess revenue in school food budgets makes it difficult to invest in the cost of converting kitchens to scratch operations, and there are staff training costs as well. It’s not impossible, but it takes a leader with drive, innovation, and commitment. Greenville Schools in South Carolina is an example of such, and resources like the School Food Institute, which is part of Chef Ann (Cooper) Foundation, exist to provide training and education.

RDL: What are your best tips for getting kids to overcome their pickiness, especially with vegetables?

Burson: In schools, when we expose students to new foods, we menu the item more than once, even if it’s met with resistance the first time. We encourage school staff and our servers to engage with the kids as they try new items because they’re more likely to accept it. Chef Louis once introduced a quinoa pomegranate salad to a school and many students had no idea what either ingredient was. They thought it was some type of rice with raisins and he had to walk around and explain what it was in order for them to try it. Lunchtime is part of education, and we can’t expect to produce healthy eaters by leaving them on their own to try new foods or taking the easy way out by serving junk. At home, involving kids in the shopping and cooking makes them much more likely to try new foods, especially veggies. Getting creative with preparation techniques also helps. My daughter used to abhor broccoli in all forms until we tried roasting it at a high temperature with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It resulted in a sweeter, crispy texture that she took to and loves.

RDL: What strategies can families use to try to power up on more healthful eating habits?

Burson: I wouldn’t expect my kids to try anything that I wouldn’t, so I’m sure not to express dislike for anything I want them to eat. Also, we established a pattern and expectation that each meal and snack, even when eating out, has to include a fruit or vegetable. Once this became the norm, it resulted in fewer arguments and more acceptance. We also have fun family dinners where we go to the store, pick a vegetable, and plan a meal around it.

RDL: What is your personal nutrition and wellness philosophy?

Burson: I’m an 80/20 dietitian through and through. My philosophy mostly comes from how I was raised. Moderation is my mantra. We were allowed one dessert per day, and I was lucky that my mom grew up as the daughter of a butcher and grocery store owner, so she has scratch-cooking in her genes. As I get older, it’s important to me that I not only enjoy my meals but my workouts as well. You’ll find me less in the gym and more on the trails in my hometown of Ojai, California, but I definitely don’t skip workouts. They make me more productive and alert, and, with them as part of my morning routine, I like to think I’m more pleasant to be around.

RDL: What are five plant foods you can’t live without?

Burson: Pinto beans because they are ingrained in me as part of the SoCal culture. Nuts because I try to avoid eating a lot of meat, and LÄRABARs are one of my daily snacks. Blueberries because they were one of the original superfoods that I latched onto. I love baked potatoes as a meal because there are so many ways to top them. Last but certainly not least, sweet Ojai Pixie tangerines.

Black Bean Hummus With Green Pepper Triangles (Vegan, Gluten-Free)

We’ve put a Southwestern spin on Greek hummus by swapping black beans for the chickpeas and triangle-shaped bell pepper slices for the pita chips. To entice kids to try new foods, we offer tasting samples while kids are lining up for lunch. It’s a fun way to expose kids to unique ingredients they may never have tried. This is one of our favorite dishes to share with them, and we also especially love it because it matches our company colors (black and green).

Makes 4 servings

1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
2 T olive oil
2 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 large green bell pepper, sliced into triangles
Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Place all ingredients, except green bell pepper and cilantro, in food processor and blend until smooth.
2. Transfer dip to a small bowl. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Dip bell pepper triangles into hummus.

Prep options: Raid the produce section to make this dip fun. Red bell peppers, as well as carrots and cucumbers, also make good dippers for this hummus.

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, known as the Plant-Powered Dietitian, is an award-winning author, blogger, and plant-based food expert. She serves as the nutrition editor of Today’s Dietitian and is currently studying Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College. Visit her at

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