“Get the kids involved—that’s so important to getting the buy-in you need for the participation you’re looking for,” says Alexandra TePoel, RD, CDN, director of foodservices at Victor Central Schools, when asked about the biggest lesson she’s learned in her career, which has taken her from residential childcare to a dietetic internship at a Florida school district to school food consultant to dietitian/nutrition coordinator at Rochester City Schools before making the move to Victor Schools, located in a suburb of Rochester a couple of years ago.
Along the way, she’s found a few more essential truths from her foundation as a dietitian and caregiver of kids to foodservice director in a district that’s trying to raise its participation. She’s had some success so far, and hopes to continue with lessons she’s learned about making healthy food that fits school lunch regulations and appeals to kids.
Student Owen Dragomani at the new baked potato bar.
“Right now, we’re at about 51 or 52 percent participation and we always want more,” TePoel says. “So that’s why this year, I’m looking at marketing, new menu items. I’ve been attending conferences, too, to get ideas from other districts.”
Here are some truths and strengths of the foodservice department that TePoel plans to tap into for the rest of this school year and beyond:
Give the chef room to groove
“Chef Jeff Clark comes from the restaurant world, and when I came here there was a lot more control over his freedom,” TePoel says, describing a creative process for menu development in which the chef comes up with an idea, the director/dietitian comes back with, “I love this recipe, but it’s coming in with too much sodium. Can you adjust it?’”
This way, “it’s a matter of letting them spread their wings a little bit,” TePoel says. “You have to give them that creative flow.”
Start a youth advisory board
Getting kids on board doesn’t get more clear cut than creating an advisory board, a goal for the future at Victor Schools. At her previous job at Rochester City Schools, TePoel worked with a group of about 15 students who gave their feedback on menus, an experience she says showed her the importance of “asking kids directly what they want.”
Last year at Victor Schools, seniors in a marketing class helped with some taste testing, and TePoel plans to tap their growing expertise on marketing this year, asking them what they think of signage and menu item campaigns.
Look for new recipe inspiration everywhere
“We had a student here in the culinary program [at vocational school] last year, and he wanted to do an internship here in our foodservice program,” TePoel says. “He was only here for about a month, but we said, ‘Why don’t you come up with a new recipe?’”
So the culinary intern came up with something that kids love that’s been on the menu ever since: a barbecue pork wrap with jalapeno coleslaw.
Students can come up with new menu ideas, too
“We just had National School Lunch week, and we had four student recipes that won,” TePoel says. “They had to be healthy. I’m going to highlight the winners in November and serve these dishes: Asian green bean salad, steamed asparagus, roasted potatoes and broccoli salad with cranberries.”
Shifting attitudes, but still, don’t serve pizza every day
Over the past decade or so in school foodservice, TePoel says she’s noticed a definite shift in kids’ attitudes toward eating healthy foods. This phenomenon may be linked to Michelle Obama’s school food efforts, TePoel speculates, but either way, she’s seen a change for the better.
“When the rules changed, our younger kids were getting served fruits and vegetables rather than just offered,” she says. “The older kids—with the real ‘chicken nugget only’ tastes—they have graduated by now. Whether it was intentional or not, more students are taking a vegetable and eating it. These kids have been programmed.”
Still, the manufactured alchemy of junk food and processed foods—fat, sugar and salt—is hard to dissuade kids from (not mention adults!)
“Overall, a lot of kids have that ‘chicken nugget’ taste, because when you put salt and fat and sugar together, it’s irresistible,” she says.
To set your healthy menu items up for success, “don’t offer pizza every day. Offer it once a week, so healthier menu items don’t have to compete against pizza every day,” TePoel says.
Premade, grab-and-go salads beat salad bars for K-12
At Victor schools, grab-and-go composed salads like Cobb, chef or vegetarian have been popular with students.
“With a salad bar, it’s hard to manage costs,” TePoel adds. “And also hard to stay within regulations. You may have one kid take two cups of meat and they’re supposed to take a quarter cup!”
Make sure staff offers fruits and veggies
“Our staff is very good about asking them to try this or that vegetable or fruit,” TePoel says, emphasizing the importance of training.
Make it fun but also help kids understand why it’s important
This past week, Victor students tried a new baked potato bar, where broccoli, bacon and chili were available as toppings, along with a housemade healthier queso (no plastic cheese here!).
“We’re going to have a noodle bar and either an Italian or Mediterranean bar coming up,” Te Poel adds. “The biggest challenge is just making sure kids realize—through nutritional education—that the food we’re serving is really what’s best for them. And our job is to make it taste good.”