Cheryl Fliss, foodservice director at Klingberg Family Centers, was prepping some smoothies for breakfast recently when inspiration struck.
“I started drawing smiley faces and suns on the cups with a marker, but I’m not really an artist,” Fliss laughs. “Then I wrote, ‘Have a good day’ on one, and I thought, ‘How about that?’ We started coming up with more stuff and it just really grew from there. The kids can really use that positive reinforcement.”
Many of the 120 students at the school, a K-12 alternative school that’s part of a nonprofit multiservice agency in New Britain, Conn., struggle with behavioral issues or are on the autism spectrum. This means therapists are part of the school day, and managing emotions is an important part of everyday life.
Messages on the yogurt-based smoothies are simple but great: “always be kind,” “try your best,” “choose kindness,” “you are amazing,” “dare to dream” and “never give up.” The smoothies are offered daily in strawberry, tropical, orange cream, mango and more flavors that change with the seasons.
The connection between food and behavior is something Fliss has intently studied during her 27 years in the foodservice department at the school. She says she realizes she’s lucky that the school doesn’t rely on commodities or very many processed foods to make meals. Much of the cooking is scratch, with vegetables and fruits in their whole forms.
Fliss believes that too many processed foods make for unhappy kids, as does skipping breakfast.
“And we really try to push breakfast because of the way food affects behavior,” Fliss says. “A lot of the kids are bussed in from all over the state and sometimes the buses come late. But if you get here at 10:30 or 11, we will still offer breakfast, even though lunch starts at 11:30.”
Fliss recognizes that the relatively small number of students at the school makes special touches like handwritten messages possible, but there are other ways to make kids feel special.
“My staff knows the kids’ names and addresses them by name; we know their preferences for what kind of milk they like and the dipping sauces they like,” she says. “To me, that kind of little stuff shows that we’re paying attention.”
Feedback from students is regularly gathered, and thanks to a kitchen crew that’s “willing to try anything,” ethnic dishes, especially Hispanic dishes, suggested by students often make it onto the menu.
Like other K-12 operations, the foodservice team at Klingberg has seen kids’ tastes change dramatically over the years.
“Ten years ago, kids would not be eating shishito peppers or purple cauliflower,” Fliss says. “They’re really opening up to new foods, and they love the fresh fruits and vegetables. Every day, our salad bar is wiped out.”