Chef Jason Morse believes he’s winning what was once an uphill battle to change students’ eating habits. He’s also winning a personal battle.
The Douglas County School District’s executive chef, who’s had a lifelong struggle with weight, in January hired a personal trainer and so far has dropped 40 pounds, two shirt sizes and six inches around his waist.
“I was a fat guy because I used to sit on the couch,” the 41-year-old said. “I think it’s horribly hypocritical for me to preach wellness and sound decision-making and not be of that same practice.”
Morse now has added exercise to a long list of passions, and attributes the country’s childhood obesity epidemic not to red meat or high-fructose corn syrup, but inactivity.
“You want obesity to go away? Get kids moving,” he said.
Morse and about 320 other employees make up Douglas County School District’s Nutrition Services, a department overseen by DCSD that is financially self-sustaining.
A former restaurant and hotel chef and graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Morse started working in the food service at 14.
“I absolutely love the chaos,” he said.
Morse came to the district as part of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Chefs Move To Schools” program. Launched in 2010, it pairs chefs with schools to show children the benefits of healthy eating. The program inspired him to start a consulting business, and a partnership with DCSD that segued into his current post.
“I went from making a couple hundred meals a day to now, what we do could potentially affect 64,000 students,” Morse said. “It’s crazy to see where we’ve come in two and a half years.”
Morse and Nutrition Services director Brent Craig helped bring salad bars to almost every school. He learned students’ food preferences by preparing and offering samples to them. Nutrition Services sponsored light-hearted contests to increase fruit-and-vegetable consumption and connect fun with quality food.
The married father of two DCSD students also is a friendly, enthusiastic ambassador for Nutrition Services, excited to share his ideas with others in the industry and popular among DCSD students. The movement toward improved student nutrition is national, but he believes DCSD is among those leading the way.
“I would say our program is a model,” he said. “We’re pretty heavily acclaimed. We’re not the only district doing it; we just are vocal in celebrating what we do.
“We all fight the same fights. How do we get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? How do we give kids more time at the table? How do we impact learning?”
Until those questions are answered, Morse won’t rest. This summer, he’s brainstorming a breakfast program, the transformation of school snacks and the best use of school gardens. In July, he’ll lead a three-day boot camp on basic food preparation skills for Nutrition Services employees.
The busy pace and endless quest for improving kids’ lives is a recipe for both professional and personal success.
“I am the happiest person in the world to be doing what I do every day,” he said.