Ruth Pino is not your stereotypical lunch lady. She is a petite, brunette dynamo, enthusiastic about healthy food choices.
Ruth works her way through the Saranac Lake High School cafeteria, finding out what works and doesn't work with what kids will eat. Sometimes she goes out and joins the students, sitting at different tables. Ruth is the first to admit that she is able to make healthy changes because of her wonderful staff.
"It is those people that are helping to make changes," Ruth said, pointing to a busy group of workers. "We are an important part in the students lives. Food is important. So are pleases and thank yous. It is important to realize that there are people here; this isn't an assembly line."
Ruth Pino helps school lunches take a healthy turn.
(Photo — Diane Chase)
Ruth officially started at the Saranac Lake Central School District as the food supervisor in 2009, but she previously worked as a consultant in 2007 after completing her degree in nutrition. She was doing an internship to become a registered dietitian through a long-distance program. She was required to do a 600-hour block and came to Paul Leahy asking if she could volunteer to do something with nutrition. During this time the school was adopting the Wellness Policy, so Ruth, through Eat Well Play Hard, helped author the cafeteria portion of the Wellness Policy.
Eat Well Play Hard is part of the North Country Healthy Heart Network helping to prevent childhood obesity and reduce long-term chronic disease through policy and environmental changes primarily through physical activity and dietary practices.
She received a sabbatical from her job in the culinary arts department at Paul Smith's College in order to attend SUNY Plattsburgh and juggled her time to make it work. She had been teaching at Paul Smith's for 12 years. Part of the degree required a clinical, which she fulfilled at St. Peter's in Albany. Her family was in the Berkshires, so she stayed with them during the week. On the weekends Ruth would drive back to the Adirondacks to work her catering business.
Ruth is a member of the American Dietetic Association and the School Nutrition Lister Group. These various avenues for nutrition provide "lunch ladies" all around to share healthy ideas that work.
"Some parents may wonder why we have hot dogs on the menu," Ruth said, giving an example of lunch choices. "I have to be financially responsible as well. If 600 kids are going to eat hot dogs, as opposed to 500 eating chicken and biscuits, I need to put hot dogs on the menu. We have the nutrient facts on each menu we send home so parents can know what their child is eating."
To satisfy the students' palate, stay on budget and maintain healthy options, Ruth chooses low-fat, low-sodium hot dogs.
"I am trying hard to keep the sodium levels at below a thousand, but it is difficult. For example, Campbell's Soup is $40 a case, but the low-sodium version is $65 a case," Ruth said. "It is challenging. I teach nutrition at Paul Smith's and I tell my students there that it is all about marketing. There has to be enough marketing and flashy ads to make a food change popular enough to affect big companies.
"I know someday I'll learn to say no but not right now. I am scheduled to do a Heart Healthy seminar for the hospital, make pumpkin cookies for Bloomingdale School and doing a team building cooking class. It has worked out well. I have an amazing staff here (in SLCS) and Michelle is the head cook, embracing everything we do. The whole staff here is excited about making good food. They love making the homemade soups. We really work together as a team."
Ruth admits that there are logistical issues to making everything homemade that just isn't practical. There are time and financial constraints for providing an average of 600 lunches a day. She has had interns from Paul Smith's come and poll students on their meal interests but she also keeps track of the particular type of meals the children eat. She runs through a list outlining what meals work and what didn't. One popular addition to the school menu is a "lunchable," where students are given low-sodium crackers, carrot sticks, an orange, with meats and cheeses to assemble their own finger-food meals.
Ruth talks about the interest in school gardens. She and her staff are helping the Bloomingdale School make cookies with pumpkins grown from their school garden. Another committee has formed to introduce composting to Petrova, while the Saranac Lake High School environmental club has asked Ruth for advice about starting its own school garden.
The environmental club at the high school is making plans for a school garden, and there is a composting committee at Petrova - so there are changes happening, but Ruth admits that it is sometimes difficult to get all the elements in place.
"Paul Smith's College does a good composting system for the cafeteria," Ruth said. "North Country School is different since that is a lifestyle for them. It is part of who they are. When I started here (SLCS) so many people had so many great ideas but if a child has never had whole-wheat bread or other healthy choices at home they are not going to be interested in it here. It has to be a slow process.
"I don't teach here," she smiles. "I do the St. Regis Restaurant at Paul Smiths and teach nutrition. In summer, I have my catering business, Adirondack Artisan Catering."
One of her former students from Paul Smith's became her business partner about 10 years ago. Adirondack Artisan Catering's main focus is weddings but they also do what they term as off-premise catering and gourmet meals offering locally grown or seasonal produce.
"I love that kind of cooking," Ruth said. "It's a very different kind of cooking, very creative. It is my passion. I love that contact with the client and making the bride's day special. It fulfills that other side of me.
"Here," Ruth points around the kitchen. " This is managerial. It is about making a difference. It is about changing the world. At Paul Smith's, it's about educating the youth. It's about our future. Catering is just for me. It's because I love it.
"I think people focus too much on what they can't do sometimes rather than focusing on what they can do if they try hard enough. I feel like we've accomplished a lot here. I love it. The kids are great. The staff is great.
"Making one change is a start. Right now we are serving 100 percent whole-wheat bread. In the beginning, the kids complained but now they don't even notice. I still do chicken strips but there is no processed, ground-up meat product in there. I found a meatball made with applesauce and whole-wheat breadcrumbs. I'm keeping things simple. I just keep plugging along.
"I don't have a lot of time to spearhead events. If people come to me with ideas, here in the cafeteria, we are always willing to listen to ideas and be a part of them. Any role we can play in the cafeteria, we will.
"My ultimate goal would be to continue taking these small steps. I want the students to be able to continue to be introduced and be able to try new, healthier choices."