To say Rhonda Deloatch likes to cook would be an understatement. Throughout her career, Rhonda has used her passion for food as a caterer, personal chef and restaurant cook. In 2004, Rhonda took that passion to another level, becoming the school chef for Common Ground High School, an urban farm and environmental education center in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Common Ground is a charter school run by a non-profit organization,” Rhonda said. “It has a one acre farm and many of the classes have something to do with the environment, food or sustainability.”
In her first year at the school, Rhonda worked to make sure the classroom lessons were more than just words. She implemented a healthy eating program known as the farm-to-table model which emphasized using food from the school’s farm in the students’ meals. Rhonda was tasked with creating breakfast and lunch menus that use the school’s produce in creative ways.
“Common Ground had wanted to implement a program like this for a while,” Rhonda said. “It was a little daunting for me at first because even though I have a catering background, I didn’t really know where to start.”
Rhonda had to learn all about the USDA and food requirements for schools and began working seven days a week to ensure the program would be a success. The school administration was on board with the program from the start, but the students weren’t as welcoming.
“I met resistance from the kids at first. The school was serving toaster pastries, sugared cereals and other unhealthy foods for breakfast,” Rhonda said. “Our goal was to have them eating better and eating less processed food. I wanted to teach the kids that vegetables don’t come out of a plastic bag. They come out of the ground.”
After the students warmed up to the program, they embraced it as a part of the school environment. “Now when the students come to Common Ground they understand what the school is about and what is expected of them. Most are really enthusiastic,” Rhonda said.
The school grows about 7,000 pounds of produce a year, and the students are in charge of everything from seeding to harvest. “One of my favorite things about the position is the availability of produce. It’s a cook’s dream,” Rhonda said.
Rhonda tries to find ways to make learning fun. “We put up a huge blackboard, almost like a bistro, and put the menu on it and tell the kids if it’s vegan, vegetarian, et cetera,” she said. “We also do a lot of ethnic days to introduce the kids to different types of food. We recently began posting the lunch menu on ‘PowerSchool,’ which students access during the day, and adding food trivia facts and things of that nature.”
She plans most of the school meals months in advance and works with the school gardener to obtain the fresh produce every week. Rhonda shared some of the meals she prepares in a typical week:
- Roast chicken and vegetable frittata served with brown rice pilaf, garlic bread, collard greens, and kale and black bean soup.
- Spaghetti and turkey meatballs and veggie spaghetti served with sautéed mixed veggies, carrot zucchini, and onions.
- Grilled chicken Caesar salad with quinoa tabbouleh and lentil soup.
In addition to being a chef at Common Ground High School, Rhonda was recently featured as one of the four chefs chosen to compete on the popular Food Network show Chopped. The episode, which featured four school chefs who are working to make their schools healthier, showcased Rhonda’s work at Common Ground.
“I was brought down to New York to tape the episode and it was an extremely long day,” Rhonda said. “It’s brought the school a lot of exposure and I’ve met so many wonderful people.”
Her appearance on the show has even inspired other school chefs to try to make changes at their schools. “I went to the School Nutrition Association conference in Denver with the other school chefs from Chopped,” said Rhonda. “It was so overwhelming to realize the impact that we had on other school chefs. People told me, ‘You have changed our lives. You make me believe I can do bigger and better things.’ That trip was amazing and made the show worthwhile.”
It’s absolutely wonderful that Rhonda is so passionate about creating healthy meals in her school and that she is making a difference in so many lives. Thanks to Rhonda for taking the time to speak with me about all of her great work.
All the best,
Disclosure: Rhonda Deloatch received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.