Farmington Public Schools is offering healthier meal options to students, with the help of a partnership with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). The Fayetteville, Arkansas-based district began with a focus on reducing sodium and has recently updated its wellness policy to achieve additional nutrition goals.
"The goal is to increase the nutritional content of our meals and encourage students to make long-term changes to choose healthier meals," says Farmington Child Nutrition Director Wendy Burrus.
UAMS approached Burrus three years ago. "They reached out to me on the recommendation from a neighboring school they were working with," Burrus says. The UAMS Healthy Food Systems runs several community meal programs designed to give expertise, guidance, and training to organizations striving to improve the nutrition of their food offerings. Among those programs is Creating Healthy Environments for Schools (CHEFS), which has empowered more than 50 local schools to implement healthy changes to their foodservice programs.
Using the CHEFS Healthy Foods Toolkit, UAMS made recommendations to Burrus for how the district could strengthen its wellness policy. "[The CHEFS team] offers me support, new ideas, training, and specific nutritional information," Burrus explains. "We get down into the nitty gritty with some nutrition info other than what I'm offered through USDA." From there, they come up with solutions that manage to offer more nutrition while still tasting good. Staff also participate in additional twice-yearly training (that goes above and beyond what the USDA requires) to learn about implementing the healthy updates.
Lowering the sodium content of meals has been the first order of business. "We're really trying to modify our recipes. This year we focused on taco meat and spaghetti seasonings," Burrus said. CHEFS has also helped Burrus source lower-sodium versions of premade products, including staples like biscuits, canned tomato products, and sausage. "We went from a pork sausage patty to one made from turkey," Burrus says.
Another change to the wellness policy involved serving more local products. Burrus was able to secure locally grown strawberries last spring, and will be offering them this year as well. She was also able to purchase beef from a local rancher for the year. Though the purchase had a significant impact on her food budget, she was able to make adjustments elsewhere to cover the cost. Though without the current pandemic waivers making all students eligible for free meals, Burrus says the beef would not have been affordable.
The wellness policy updates also includes plans for improvements that will occur gradually over the next two and a half years. These include updated standards for whole grains, fewer added sugars, removing products containing artificial sweeteners and dyes, and prominently displaying the healthiest meal options to encourage students to choose those foods.
Steps towards many of these goals are already in the works. When Burrus and the CHEFS team reviewed the district's recipe for ranch dressing, CHEFS recommended using low-fat buttermilk and low-fat mayonnaise. But after some discussion, the group opted against using low-fat mayo because it would drive up the dressing's sugar content. "It adds sugar, and that wasn't our goal. We may look at making our own seasoning mix," Burrus says. CHEFS has also helped Burrus explore lower-sugar breakfast cereal options.
CHEFS helps Burrus in other ways too. "They come in to our cafeterias and do smarter breakfast and lunch assessments, watching to see what students are taking, whether they're taking fresh fruits, and give me back a report card for information," Burrus says. "It's great support to me, because I can't be everywhere at once." Plans are also in the works to implement student surveys and student taste-tests.
So far, students generally seem to be accepting of the new menu items. "We see students we never saw before eating school lunch," says Burrus. She notes, though, that students aren't afraid to be vocal when they don't like something. "A high school student created an Instagram account to rate our food. It's been good but also a little ugly as well."
Implementing the changes has required a little more time and effort on Burrus's part. But she's happy to do it for the benefit of her customers, especially when she has CHEFS' guidance and support. "Just for them to call or email me with ideas, and me not having to think about all of these things myself, that support has been huge," she says.