Lisa Rowley stood at a long wooden table among humming kitchen appliances with a bright green large watermelon in front of her.
For just a moment she paused before she went to work transforming the melon into a basket. It’s a few minutes after 8 a.m. — just a few hours until hundreds of hungry students would stream through the cafeteria of Provo High School for lunch.
Rowley’s gloved hands began making V-shaped incisions in the watermelon before scooping out the insides of the fruit as the basket begins to take shape.
When it’s time for lunch, Rowley will roll out the finished display, featuring fruit in the shape of flowers and butterflies. Watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe have been turned into bowls for delicate balls of fruit.
The unique display is just one of a series of garnishes or food art that Rowley’s kitchen and others across Provo prepare each day as part of Provo City School District’s efforts to engage students with fruits and vegetables they might be inclined to ignore.
Rowley has been working in the kitchen at Provo High, which she attended 35 years ago, for eight years. After more than five years of making these food art creations, she said the pieces they make get eaten quickly once the bell rings.
“(I like) having the kids come through and say, ‘Wow! Look at that. Oh my gosh, that’s a little such-and-such. I want that,’ even though it doesn’t last long,” she said.
Rowley said one thing they have found while working in the cafeteria is to keep it simple. So the turnovers they make for lunch get little apple appliques and some of the tomatoes in the salad get turned into lady bugs.
“The most fun ones are the simple ones, where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, look how cute this is.' It took me five minutes and look at how it turned out,” she said.
Rowley said the students really liked the boo-nanas she made around Halloween.
“I used the black gel to make eyes and a mouth,” she said. “So they were bananas, but they were a ghost.”
With the help of a toolbox from the school district, some cookie cutters and a little imagination even something simple can be both nutritious and engaging, but it has taken some practice and instruction.
“We are learning about some of these (different tools available),” Rowley said. “We have books and instructions for each little tool and we are still learning.”
Provo High School isn’t the only school in the district crafting these garnishes and displays. Just scroll through the photos on the ITSMeals at Provo School District Facebook page and you’ll see lemons cut and shaped into fish or mice, a pineapple Pikachu and sandwiches that look like owls.
Child Nutrition Program Director Laura Larsen said she has seen the cafeteria workers do some amazing things in the year she’s been with the Provo School District.
“When I saw what they were doing, I thought we need to get them the tools to do this,” she said. “Just some tools that they can use things that take a lot of details or something simple.”
Larsen said the food art and garnishes have encouraged more students to buy school lunches and have better eating habits. She said the way food looks impacts the way it tastes.
“If you put out something as simple as a whole orange, they can look beautiful,” she said. “But if you wedge them and open them up like a flower, the are just more appealing. You can see the color, the texture and the inside of the orange.”
The displays and encouragement to try new things can teach students about nutrition and eating healthy, or it can spark an interest in the culinary field. One student was inspired to make his own food art display at home and bring it into show the cafeteria workers, who put it on display.
“Just a simple flower, a simple little lady bug in a salad makes a difference,” Larsen said.
Ashley Smith, manager at Rock Canyon Elementary, understands the power of simple things. She said the focus on making a few small garnishes can make a difference.
She took the time to add a pineapple with a flower made of cucumbers to a tray of diced pineapple. It joined the ant made of radishes and green beans and fish made of oranges on the lunch line.
Smith has worked in school cafeterias for more than five years, but before that she worked in professional kitchens. She said she expected things to be different working in the school cafeterias, but they are just as intense.
“It’s totally just as crazy as working in all the other restaurants,” she said. “But I love it. I love the hustle. I love the pressure for some reason.”
Smith said she also appreciates the chances for creativity the food art and garnishes provide.
“I love the parts I do get to be creative on and give it my own spin,” she said.