BY ROBYN SIDERSKY
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Brian Kiernan deals with some of Fredericksburg’s pickiest eaters.
But he says he’s up for the challenge.
Kiernan is the division food service manager for Fredericksburg public schools.
“The hardest thing to do is break the stereotype of cafeteria food,” he said. “But that’s what you do—break out the sledgehammer and you break it.”
Since he was hired eight years ago, Kiernan has worked to improve the breakfasts and lunches served daily to Fredericksburg students.
He said he strives for creative and innovative food options, and has been incorporating homemade and healthier food into the meals.
Thursday, he’ll take his ideas to the White House for a roundtable discussion on school nutrition with Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives.
In July, Kiernan attended a Virginia School Boards Association conference in Richmond and set up a table to share his ideas for improving school lunches as part of the Top Chef Fair.
Kass was supposed to be a speaker at the conference but had to cancel, so instead, he invited select participants from the conference to the White House, said Gina Patterson, the assistant executive director of VSBA.
Kiernan and David Baker, the chief financial officer for the city schools, will join about 22 school board members and food service employees from other Virginia districts in the discussion.
Kiernan uses his background working in restaurants in his current job.
He said he looks at the school meals program as if it were a restaurant in business.
He said it’s challenging because his “customers” can’t leave—and his biggest competition is the packed lunch from Mom and Dad.
He moved to the Fredericksburg area from New York in 1988 and has more than 20 years of experience in the food industry.
He said he has worked in the kitchens of J. Brian’s, Sammy T’s, the former Orbit’s and the Blarney Stone.
In the mid-90s he worked in Stafford County schools and in 2005 came to Fredericksburg schools.
When he started, he ran the kitchen at Lafayette Upper Elementary School. Two years later he was promoted to run the kitchens for the whole division.
Over the years, he’s made subtle changes to the food program.
For example, he requested a salad bar and was initially met with doubts. But the decision has resulted in a positive reception.
He works to incorporate healthy foods into the diet, but he knows the challenge is getting the students to actually eat them.
One of his missions has been to offer more homemade foods. He said from fall into the spring, schools offer homemade soups once a week and offer soup-and-sandwich days.
Each of the school division’s five kitchens has its own menu.
He said he plans them out about a month in advance. He tries new things and then sees what kind of response he gets from the students and then decides how to proceed.
Kiernan said he uses products such as Morningstar Farms meatless items, hummus and pasta salad, which have been well-received by the students.
Thursday was freshman orientation at James Monroe High School, and Kiernan and his team prepared a meal of wings, fajitas and salad bar for about 250 freshmen.
The day started in the kitchen at 7 a.m. and by 11, the students were being fed.
The scents of chicken and beef, cilantro, cumin and other spices wafted through the kitchen.
Kiernan walked through the kitchen collecting cilantro, paprika, tomato sauce, onions and jalapenos, all to be made into a salsa.
It’s just one example of how he tries to incorporate fresh ingredients into his dishes.
Carolyn Withers, one of the workers in the JM cafeteria, has been designated as the official taster.
Withers has worked with Kiernan the past three years.
“We make sure it tastes like home, and it does,” she said about the food they serve.
Melody Walthour, another cafeteria worker, said Kiernan doesn’t like using canned vegetables.
Kiernan said he spends $70,000 to $80,000 on produce alone, which is about 10 percent of his budget.
Walthour said that last year they had fresh greens, cauliflower, carrots, candied yams and candied carrots and at least three times a week, students can get fresh fruit. She said they don’t use canned fruit because it has too much sugar.
Robyn Sidersky 540/374-5413