Lisa Watkins, director of school technology, pedals up a tropical smoothie on the “shake cycle,” which uses a bike to run the blender. During School Lunch Week, Gwinnett County Public Schools hosted its fourth annual Taste of Cafe Gwinnett. Sponsored by the Gwinnett County School Nutrition Team, the event took place at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee, and showcased actual school lunches for central office staff to sample. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Gwinnett school employees treated to great meal — same as the kids get

When you work for a school district (other than teachers and nutrition workers), you don’t often get to the school cafeteria. So once a year — during National School Lunch Week — Gwinnett County Public Schools brings the school cafeteria to some of those other employees.

For the fourth year in a row, the nutrition department treated personnel at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center (headquarters) in Suwanee. With about 700 employees, it would be impossible for those behind-the-scenes folks to get to a school.

Some of the menu items were chopped salads with field greens and a raspberry vinaigrette dressing, gourmet burgers with mushrooms and Swiss cheese, deep dish pizza, Café chicken minis on Parker House rolls, stuffed pasta shells, lemongrass Thai chicken, and pudding with a Cinnamon Toast Crunch brittle.

“We wanted to give our personnel an opportunity to sample what the students eat,” said Karen Hallford, school nutrition program director. “Many of our employees are also parents of our students so this gives them a chance to participate in National School Lunch Week without leaving the office.”

Nobody was surprised that there was no “mystery meat” or odd-colored gelatin.

“This isn’t the cafeteria food of my youth,” said Gail Blanchette. She’s worked for the school system for 22 years and said she’s glad for the once-a-year “Taste of Café Gwinnett” event.

Her co-workers agreed.

“This gives you perspective about what your kids are eating at school,” said Leslie Sierra, a 14-year veteran of the district with two kids enrolled in Gwinnett schools.

“One eats school lunch and the other doesn’t,” she said. “I don’t know why, though, this is delicious!”

Hallford said the offerings Thursday were the same fare kids receive. The recipes and ingredients are exactly the same.

Many of the dishes featured locally produced products, such as the Pumpkin Cheese Bars that used pumpkin grown on Jaemor Farms about 30 miles from the county line. And the commercial products are the same brands, such as Land O’ Lakes and Tyson, that are in local supermarkets.

Amos Rice, a retired executive with Chick-fil-A, now works as a receptionist at the Wilbanks building. He said he knows chicken and he knows quality food.

“These meals can hold their own against just about any fast-casual restaurant around,” he said as he worked toward cleaning his plate.

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