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Try It Tuesday, for example, was a monthly series of tastings for potential new menu items, with students giving dishes a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Saint Louis Public Schools drive student engagement

Multiple efforts promote interest in healthy eating habits at school.

Saint Louis Public Schools’ food and nutrition services department has followed a multilayered approach to encouraging healthy eating habits and food knowledge. Tactics like menu sampling, regular exposure to unfamiliar ingredients, healthy snacks, hands-on demos, gardening programs and connections with local chefs and local farmers’ products were designed to engage the city’s 23,000 public school students.

With COVID, some of those efforts have been paused or scaled back for social distancing and hygiene reasons, says Althea Albert-Santiago, department director. Try It Tuesday, for example, was a monthly series of tastings for potential new menu items, with students giving dishes a thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s been temporarily shelved to comply with COVID protocols.

Through a roving chef workshop.

a dietitian and a chef from Southwest Foodservice Excellence visit schools and get students involved with preparing simple meals—a stir-fry, or a pizza, for example. They don paper chefs’ hats, glove up and follow recipes using portable induction burners. Younger children take on simpler tasks, such as working with fruit. “It teaches students how to eat healthy and that it can be fun,” Albert-Santiago says. Southwest is the contract management company handling foodservice at the city’s 73 schools.

A number of grants and support from community groups have fueled additional outreach and education. Gateway Greening, a local group that promotes sustainable urban agriculture, works with a handful of Saint Louis schools to support youth gardens. The gardens and related programming are designed to cultivate an interest in agriculture and healthy eating.

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Farmers’ markets introduce students to unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

Thanks to a farm-to-school grant, Saint Louis schools also offer a farmers’ market experience. Before COVID, students could go through the cafeteria line, learn a brief description and sample cut-up fruits and vegetables not normally found on the menu—dragonfruit, or sugar snap peas, for instance. Some of the products are harvested locally. To adapt, the foods are now portioned out, sometimes combined, and offered in sealed containers.

The foodservice team also gets students involved in menus through regular focus groups and solicits input from teachers, principals and parents—“good, bad or indifferent,” Alberto Santiago says. Between Try It Tuesday and the focus groups, “we really try to incorporate (students’) input as much as possible on our menus,” Albert-Santiago says.

When students complained about bland food, for instance—a result of USDA-mandated reduced sodium levels—the middle and high schools added a “spice it up” flavor station with calorie-, sodium- and MSG-free seasonings that allowed diners to customize their own meals.

COVID restrictions may have put a damper on some of these initiatives, but the department’s primary mission—getting students fed—has remained the main priority. Albert-Santiago and the Southwest Foodservice Excellence team dealt with the same challenges every school system faced over the past year and adopted many of the familiar measures: frequent cleaning, gloves, masks, hand sanitizers, temperature checks, grab-and-go meals, weekly meal kits and so on. The team also came up with some practical solutions.

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When students complained about bland food, for instance—a result of USDA-mandated reduced sodium levels—the middle and high schools added a “spice it up” flavor station with calorie-, sodium- and MSG-free seasonings that allowed diners to customize their own meals.

One of them was moving lunch service to classrooms, a decision driven by the small size of some cafeterias, which would make social distancing difficult to accomplish. Systemwide, students were familiar with eating breakfast in the classroom, a program adopted well before COVID. Depending on the grade level, they would pick up to-go meals in the cafeteria or from a cart, or the staff would deliver breakfast to classrooms. Today, nearly all the schools provide the same service at lunch.

There were some doubts about the feasibility of this move at first, but some principals and teachers have already said they’d like the classroom lunches to continue beyond COVID. “The kids like the socialization, and we have not had any complaints from them,” Albert-Santiago says. “Even the teachers are engaged; at one time they were a little apprehensive,” she adds.

Not all the system’s students have returned to in-school learning, so reaching everyone has been a challenge. Initially the department had 27 meal distribution sites open, with some of them available in evening hours to accommodate working parents. The number of sites dropped after students returned to class. During the upcoming summer some schools will stay open to provide meals, something that in a normal year would have happened at parks and other locations across the city.

For the time being, Albert-Santiago says flexibility is her watchword.

“We’re trying to be flexible and ensuring that we’re meeting the needs of the parents and students and serving healthy, nutritious meals,” she says.

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