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On the Front Lines of Child Nutrition

On the Front Lines of Child Nutrition

At Jackson, Mississippi Schools, the school meal program is serious business.

< Today, child nutrition is being challenged as never before. Even as there are increasing demands for better, fresher and more nutritious (read: more expensive) meals, district foodservices are themselves faced with rising costs and flatlining revenues. In trying times such as this, it's good to have a foodservice director who knows her way around.

And that's what Jackson, MS, Public Schools is most fortunate to have in Mary Hill, executive director of the district's Food Service Department. With almost 30 years of experience in her post, Hill knows almost everything there is to know about both the program and the community it serves.

She is also a major industry figure who has helped set the policies and priorities of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), both as an influential local director and as a national officer. Four years ago, she served a term as president of the SNA, leading its efforts for more public funding and more effective regulation in Washington's corridors of power (for a video of Hill testifying before a Congressional committee in her capacity as SNA's president, go to;k-12-foodservice).

Efforts like that are especially critical for a school nutrition program like Jackson's, where 90 percent of the nearly 30,000 students qualify for free/reduced price meals under the federal School Breakfast and Lunch Program. It is in a district like this that public policy regarding child nutrition is felt most, both in terms of funding levels and in impact on real lives.

The high free/reduced ratio effectively limits Jackson's financial resources to what it can recoup from federal programs. For example, in the current school year, federal reimbursements will contribute an estimated $18.5 million of the program's $20.8 million budget. The rest comes from a combination of state supplementary funding, and whatever can be generated from student and adult cash sales, catering and preparing meals for few outside clients.

None of this is new to Hill. She grew up in Jackson and is a graduate of its public schools. It's where she first dreamed of making a career in home economics, a dream fortunately deferred when fate took a hand. After teaching for four years in Laurel, MS, following graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi, she wanted to return to her hometown, so she applied for an open teaching job there. But a deputy superintendent convinced her to take another open position instead: director of food service. That was in 1983 and “the rest is history,” Hill laughs. “I'm still waiting for that teaching job to open up.”

An Accomplished History

You can tell a lot about the effectiveness of a school nutrition program from the participation counts, and at Jackson they are exemplary. The department serves around 26,000 school lunches a day in a district with less than 30,000 students. The daily breakfast count is 14,000. In addition, 25 of the district's 60 school sites offer an afternoon snack program that serves 1,600 each day on average.

“School is the only place where some of these children can depend on getting a good meal,” Hill says. “We want to make sure that meal is not only nutritious but appealing.”

Mission accomplished. As I tour through Jackson's school sites with Hill, I'm struck by the general attitude present in the cafeterias. For these kids, getting a good meal at school is serious business, and lunchtime is not simply a glorified recess as you see at some schools where participation is hostage to convenience and socializing trumps dining. Here, they line up eagerly for the day's fare.

The lines move briskly. Kids quickly gauge their choices (two entrée options for elementary, three for secondary, plus up to half a dozen sides), move along, check out and take their seats. While kids definitely want to sit with their friends and there's lots of lunchtime chatter, few seem like they'd rather talk than eat.

The lunchrooms are orderly. Teachers sit with students (per district policy) and generally purchase their meals in the cafeteria also. Hill encourages this, believing that youngsters will take their signals from the adult behavior they observe.

The food itself is appealing and presented attractively. Nothing is particularly exotic. The nutrition program is not here to experiment with designer food or fusion concepts. It's here to give kids what they find appealing while maintaining the required nutrition standards.

There is the usual parade of time-tested favorites: breaded chicken fillet patties, chili dogs, WG corn dogs, WG pizza, cheeseburgers, WG spaghetti with meat sauce and regional favorites like red beans with sausage and brown rice, beef shepherd's pie and chicken spaghetti. Sides are heavy on fresh vegetables and fruits (from fresh peach and cantaloupe to steamed squash and carrot sticks with dip) and whole grain sources like fluffy brown rice and blackeyed peas.

Slowly Out With the Old...

The district is slowly upgrading its physical plant — we swing by a number of construction sites where new schools are going up — but it's slow going, and Hill deplores the fact that many students are forced to go to class in temporary trailers.

A $150 million bond issue passed just before the current economic slump hit — a fortunate piece of good timing — and is funding much of the progress.

The new facilities that have opened are indeed impressive, such as the new combined elementary/middle school complex called Bates/Cardoza. For school foodservice professionals, the most interesting thing about Bates/Cardoza is the combined, centrally located kitchen/cafeteria that serves both schools, a piece of efficiencies-of-scale engineering that helps balance out some of the inefficiencies inherent in aging facilities at many other sites that hamper efforts at streamlining.

Currently, Hill is eagerly anticipating the opening of the newest facility, a middle school called Blackburn scheduled to open in January. It will accommodate 650 students who currently attend a school building that dates to the early part of the last century — and looks it.

Blackburn will follow another recent opening, Peeples, a middle school with an enrollment of 675. How popular is the new cafeteria in the new Peeples? Average daily lunch participation is around 650, says Foodservice Manager Al Fairley.

At the other end of the spectrum is Lanier High School, a historic institution that had served a key educational and social function for the city's African American community before the civil rights movement brought integration to Jackson. Today, the history remains a living presence, but the facility clearly shows its age even though the cafeteria was renovated about a decade ago to add storage space and double the seating capacity.

When we visit at lunchtime, the cafeteria is packed despite the theoretically increased seating space. As at the other schools we visit, these teens also appreciate the virtues of a good midday meal. The free-reduced percentage here is 96 percent, and even breakfast is a popular item, says Assistant Principal Danny Lewis.

About 450 of the school's 760 students get breakfast at the school, showing up early enough to be able to do so, and most choose the hot breakfasts, he says. Lanier also offers afterschool snacks, and about a hundred kids partake on a typical day.

Focus on Nutrition

Hill makes sure that Jackson takes advantage of any program that can supplement her district's menus and promote better nutrition. For example, 23 school sites participate in the USDA's Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program, which supplies fresh produce to students outside the meal times. “We aren't allowed to serve it in the cafeterias or during the lunch period, so students get it as a snack in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon in their classrooms,” Hill says.

The program is one of the ways Jackson Schools has tried to increase fresh fruits and vegetables on its school menus, part of a district wellness initiative launched in 2006. Those menus now feature a rotating selection of five salads of the day such as Grilled Chicken Salad, Sandwich and Salad Combo and Tuna Salad.

Also increasing in usage are whole grain products like pizza crusts, bread, buns and even waffles, while fried foods have mostly been eliminated. Hill says the transition wasn't as difficult as might be imagined. Curiously, the biggest issue seems to have been visual: “some students reacted to the somewhat different color of the oven baked substitutes,” she says.

A few schools have even begun planting school gardens, thanks to grants secured by Hill, who misses no opportunity to tap resources that could benefit her program. The gardens produce crops like greens, tomatoes, watermelon and cabbage, but their purpose is primarily educational, not practical, given volume needs and food safety concerns over handling.

Cooking healthier has also been boosted by the introduction of combi-ovens into the district's kitchens. Because of the investment cost, this has had to be done incrementally, but ovens are now in 15 sites, and Hill is plotting to increase that.


Enrollment: 29,919

Free/reduced Pct.: 90%

School Sites: 60 (54 onsite prep, 6 satellite)

Employees: 400

Meals/Day: 26,000 lunch, 14,000 breakfast, 1,600 PM snack

Budget: $20.8 million

Executive Staff: Mary A. Hill, executive director; Christell Hicks, Marc Rowe, Vickie Williams, area supervisors; Alfred Young, warehouse supervisor

She's been quite effective in gaining investments in her program — which is not an easy sell at any time in a cash-strapped district like Jackson. Nevertheless, Hill has an impressive list of successes, including the introduction of an automated POS system way back in the mid 90s (since upgraded) to validate program participation by free/reduced eligible students, streamline production and promote more efficient procurement.

As the district slowly proceeds on a capital improvement initiative to replace aging and inadequate facilities, Hill has added design consultant to her role portfolio, working closely with architects to make sure that the kitchen and dining facilities in the new schools will not only mesh with modern school nutrition requirements but also are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances in future years.
Antiquated production spaces and aging equipment hamper meal preparation at the older sites, a significant concern in a district with no central production capability. Equipment upgrades like the combi-ovens help these site kitchens be more efficient even in the older spaces.

With onsite production at most schools, logistics, replenishment and storage are significant factors for the foodservice department, which has a central warehouse that receives and stores commodities and staples like paper and canned goods.

These are sent to school sites once a week in the department's four delivery trucks. Other replenishment is made to each site by a prime supplier and by bread, fresh produce and milk distributors. Each site keeps an extra day's worth of stock on hand to deal with emergencies.

Future Plans

Hill says she worries about future federal mandates, such as the one for reducing sodium content, and what that might mean for her meal production options. “Right now, those new requirements would force us to do more scratch cooking because the processed food we get has too much sodium to meet the standard,” she says.

Another new initiative she hopes to expand is a breakfast-in-the-classroom project now underway at one elementary site, though it only affects kindergarteners and pre-K students at this time.

“We wanted to start small,” Hill explains. “A successful classroom breakfast program needs leadership that starts with the principal, and also a team effort that involves not just teachers but maintenance staff and, of course, the kids.”

To further validate Jackson's accomplishments in the nutrition area, 11 district schools submitted applications to the HealthierUS School Challenge last school year.

This year, wellness initiatives include the Organ Wise Guy nutrition education program. Also, all a la carte items must meet district nutritional standards and no student can buy them until they have purchased a reimbursable meal (brown baggers can buy a milk with a verified sack lunch).

As fits with her longstanding association with SNA, Hill is a big supporter of involvement in the national school nutrition community. All 60 of her site managers and all three area supervisors have completed SNA's certification program (“on their own time,” she says proudly). She also encourages membership in SNA, and all managers have complied. Among the perks is a chance to attend regional meetings and even the national convention on a rotating basis.

“I want them to meet and mingle with their peers, to listen and learn and know that they are part of a community with a common mission,” Hill explains.

She also taps suppliers to enhance menus and educate staff. For example, she recently sent her managers to one of the district's major equipment suppliers for a course on how to utilize the units more efficiently and broadly.

Her goals for the current school year include implementation of an online payment system, expanding the Organ Wise Guys program to more elementary schools, continuing the USDA Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program and extending the HealthierUS Challenge application process to all elementary sites.

Organic Learning

A particularly popular nutrition education program used by Jackson City Schools is Organ Wise Guy. Funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, it is currently being taught in 18 of the district's schools. The essence of Organ Wise Guy is an emphasis on how proper nutrition affects separate parts of one's body. The program uses a series of age-appropriate tools ranging from books and posters to specially designed dolls that show the different internal organs and explain their functions.

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