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School Nutrition Innovators

School Nutrition Innovators

A NUTRITION EVANGELIST. Over the past two years, Folsom-Cordova Foodservice Director Al Schieder has provided dozens of school foodservice facility tours and presentations to parental, educational and other groups concerned about nutrition and education in the northern California region.

What makes a good school nutrition program? It's not just providing literature and materials, or ensuring that lunches comply with government standards. It's also taking the extra steps to cement the messages; to make kids want to eat healthful foods; and to get the community to recognize foodservice departments and directors as nutrition experts, not just the people who dish up the casseroles.

On a daily basis, creative, energetic school foodservice directors around the country pull out all the stops to provide meaningful nutrition information and tempting-yet-healthful foods for students. The strategies are sometimes subtle, sometimes less so—but are ever-evolving, as the nine different school nutrition programs in the following pages illustrate. From costumed mascots to nutrition fairs, from free breakfasts on test days to global food fairs and healthy express carts, today's most innovative school FSDs are experimenting with a range of tactics to put nutrition front and center before their student customers.

Folsom-Cordova Unified School District

Stealth nutrition

BOWLING FOR NUTRITION. Robin Jones, supervisor for Folsom-Cordova's secondary school sites, displays a bowl of Pho Noodle Soup.

“A lot of school districts get entrenched in serving certain types of meals,” states Al Schieder, foodservice director at Folsom-Cordova Unified School District near Sacramento, California. “To come up with nutritious meals that students would eat, I started researching and looking at nations known for having healthy populations, such Japan and at those in the Mediterranean—places where they have foods that are naturally low in fat, inexpensive, but very nutritious.”

The results? A culturally diverse, popular menu in a district that no longer offers soda, junk food or any a la carte selections. “We developed items with three components in mind: good looks, good taste and nutritional value,” Schieder declares.

His global approach to variety and good nutrition is evident from a menu that boasts homemade sushi (“California rolls”) produced on the district's own $20,000 sushimaking machine; teriyaki bowls; fresh-made pasta (rolled out of the district's fresh pasta machine) that includes cheese ravioli and pesto tortellini along with spaghetti and rotini noodles; on-site produced garlic chicken pizza, using less cheese than most purchased brands; muffalettas (made with pocket bread from the same dough as the pizza); vegetable chow mein; Thai noodle salad; fajita bowls; chipotle pork wraps; fresh panini and focaccia-bread sandwiches; and Vietnamese pho noodle soup, among others.

With attractive food that's packaged well and served in updated cafeterias which have the “sharp look of a B&I establishment,” Schieder manages to successfully get nutritious meals into students without banging them over the head with messages. In the nine years he's been at the district, sales have grown from $1.7 million to $3.7 million a year.

West Contra Costa Unified School District
Vallejo, California

Getting in the door

Nutrition education in the classroom certainlysounds like a good idea, but for many school foodservice directors, it's a pipe dream. With classroom time already at a premium because of state-mandated testing programs, teachers balk at having to give up any additional instructional minutes for extra activities. And unfortunately, in many districts, the relationship between teachers/administrators and the foodservice department is anything but open when it comes to planning educational strategies.

So the question for many directors is not “how to go about teaching nutrition education,” but, “how do you get in the classroom door?”

Heidy Camorongan, foodservices director at Northern California's West Contra Costa Unified School District, has the answer: build respect and recognition for the foodservice department through active community involvement.

For over a decade, Camorongan has been sponsoring big, nutrition-oriented events to which she invites the district's assembly and congressional representatives, the mayor, USDA staff, superintendent, local police and fire chiefs and the news media. (“ Every year we invite the governor, but he's yet to show up,” she says.)

From an annual, community-wide Health and Fitness Festival to the Nutrition Olympics and Celebrity Breakfast events, she proves that the foodservice department is a happening place. Students, administrators, teachers, parents and the rest of the community can't help but think: Why else would such dignitaries show up? And why else would favorable news about the foodservice department keep appearing in the local papers?

With a base of respect established, Camorongan says a department stands a better chance at finding a spot on the classroom curriculum. “A good first step is to make an appointment to plan a week's menu with a particular classroom,” she explains. “That menu, which goes to 35,000 households, will proudly display the fact that so-and-so teacher of such-and-such class in a certain school planned this particular menu. They love to see their names published.”

But before getting down to the menu, Camorongan emphasizes, “you give a spiel on nutrition and bring in the department mascot, if you have one.” (Her department uses NutriBear and managers decked out in fruit, vegetable and milk carton costumes.)

Camorongan finds that at her schools, teachers and administrators are most receptive to working nutrition education into the health curriculum. “We also invite classrooms to come individually to our Nutrition Center [a new, 34,000 sq. ft. central kitchen facility] for a tour to see how their lunches, breakfasts and snacks are prepared.”

A garden program at one school provides another weekly opportunity to talk about healthful foods with grade schoolers; while well-attended, monthly nutrition education courses for parents and staff address issues such as label reading and more nutritious food preparation. Universal breakfast in the classrooms, afterschool snacks, and summer feeding programs keep foodservice a constant and vital presence in the daily life of Camorongan's community.

Gadsden Independent Schools
Anthony, New Mexico

A conducive atmosphere

THE GOOD LIFE. The Gadsden district looks to educate parents as well as students.

At schools in New Mexico's Gadsden Independent District, students never can forget they've got good and nutritious meals available from foodservices. The department's logo won't let them.

With a colorful “Eat Well at School” emblem prominently emblazoned on banners, signs, paper plates and cups, utensil packets, napkins, takeout bags and boxes, balloons, water bottles and the foodservice workers' polo shirts, aprons and visors, the message has burrowed deep into students' minds.

Foodservice Director Demetrious Giovas and his staff back up those words all the way, and have a 96 percent participation rate to prove it. That, in a district which has rejected all processed meats (“that means no corn dogs, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, or bologna,” he says) and has no snack bars, fryers, vending machines or a la carte items. What's more, all bread is 100 percent whole wheat, even burger buns.

On the other hand, some of what Giovas' district does champion is plenty of fresh sandwiches; onsite-made, low-fat pizza; regional specialties like huevos rancheros, quesadillas and chili con queso; fresh salads; a surprisingly popular baked catfish basket with potato wedges; and, of course, lots of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables.

And it's all presented in bright and inviting serveries by warm, uniformed workers. “Kids feel completely welcome here, and that's our biggest success,” Giovas says. “Of course, the food has to taste good, but atmosphere is very important. It's essential to have workers spend time with the kids and provide professional service in a pleasant environment. That dedication to service is a cornerstone of our success. After all, if you go to a restaurant and are mistreated, would you want to go back? Kids feel the same way.”

Workers at Gadsden have not gained that demeanor by chance. Giovas notes he has a “huge training program” that requires 90 continuing education credits per year from workers. They're rewarded with incremental per-hour pay increases as they log progressively higher job certifications and education credits. They also receive paid membership in ASFSA, and 40 of them get sent to the annual conference each year.

Such training efforts coupled with extensive employee appreciation programs result in “zero turnover,” according to Giovas, and that job satisfaction comes across in how workers treat students and present nutrition information.

In order to help families continue to provide equally nutritious meals at home, Giovas adapted a University of Texas-designed program three years ago for parents. Called Que Sabrosa Vida (the Good Life), the program “shows Hispanic parents how to take cultural foods and cook them more healthfully,” he says.

Giovas sponsors the day-long, free workshops to groups of up to 25 parents, teaching them how to make Mexican rice “without sautèing it in lard first”; how to soften tortillas for enchiladas by dipping them into sauce instead of lard; how to use a blend of low-fat cheese to reduce overall fat content; how to degrease beef; and other skills. “We take them step-by-step through the different foods, and also emphasize the importance of portioning, showing just what a true portion size is,” he says.

The sessions, during which foodservices provide breakfast and lunch, were so popular that Giovas conducted them for “ twentyone consecutive Saturdays” at first. He has since scaled back to three times a year, and they're always a big draw.

DeKalb County School System
Decatur, Georgia

Maximum magic

GOOD NUTRITION SUMS IT UP. DeKalb County's program links healthful eating with academic performance

Any cafeteria manager can don a flashy costume to help disseminate nutrition education messages. But how many school districts can claim a professional magician on hand to spread the word?

DeKalb County Schools in Georgia introduced Max's Maximum Nutrition Show several years ago, to rave reviews. Max, the “Nutrition Magician,” has since gone on to delight audiences in other schools districts around the region and at American School Food Service Association conferences. “But we were the first county to bring him into all our schools,” notes Director Joan Kidd.

In a 30-minute performance, with nutrition content approved by registered dietitians, the magician (Max Howard, a professional speaker and trainer out of Atlanta) puts on a high-energy magic show that manages to entertainingly emphasize everything from eating in moderation to why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

“It's a very motivational and funny show,” Kidd says. “He uses scarves pulled out of hats for the different food groups, and even has one scarf with a broken heart on it. He talks about how too much fat can damage the heart, and through eating right—magically—the heart on the scarf is whole again. Students, teachers and administrators all just love it.”

But Max is just one of the ways in which Kidd strives to keep nutrition interesting and top-of-mind for students. A red-caped “Super Nutrition, Super Hero” makes the rounds at K through 5 schools during February (for National Heart Month) and March (for National Nutrition Month).

“We call in Super Nutrition, who travels the globe to talk to young people about the power of making good decisions about food, to help fight against child obesity,” Kidd notes. “Super Nutrition gives students a ‘secret super power' to be able to make good decisions about food.”

As part of a county-wide reading initiative, Kidd's department also sponsored a reading club dubbed “Smart Bites Book Club.” For every 25 books students read, they received a substantial prize (donated by vendors), ranging from stuffed animals and radios to movie tickets. Cafeteria managers—some in costume and all bearing healthy cafeteria snacks—went into classrooms to read aloud to students and get a chance to further emphasize nutrition messages.

“We had signs in the cafeteria that said, ‘Good Nutrition Sums It Up,'” Kidd explains, “with the message being that if you add reading and school meals, you get successful students.” The cafeteria lines were decorated with books and fresh fruits and vegetables during the event.

That same message is carried to the students when Kidd's department packages up complimentary breakfasts for elementary school students during statewide testing days in April. They're delivered to every classroom in 65 schools (almost 40,000 breakfasts).

Sodexho USA, School Services

Star Power

LIFT OFF. Sodexho looks to make its school nutrition mascot a K-12 star.

As a management company whose portfolio of K-12 contracts arguably make it the nation's largest provider of student meals, Sodexho USA has a vested interest in developing programs to battle childhood obesity and promote more healthful eating habits among school children. As part of that effort, the company recently unveiled two new dedicated programs for that purpose: an elementary school initiative dubbed School Stars, and a middle school-oriented program to be called Performance Zone.

“We're trying to grow our nutrition outreachprograms,” explains Richard Hill, vice president of product development for Sodexho School Services. “There's still a lack of education on the part of many students and parents regarding just what really is nutritious and healthy.”

To reach grade schoolers, the company has packaged new nutrition education pieces for classroom use that succinctly illustrate to teachers how to incorporate nutrition into regular classroom curricula, from social studies lessons, where they can teach about the history of foods, to math, where they can show students how to figure calories and fat percentages of certain edibles.

How likely is it that teachers will actually use the materials? That was one major concern for program developers at Sodexho, but one Hill thinks they've solved. With a degree in education himself, he made sure that when lesson plans were developed, they were clearly geared toward teachers' needs. “We met with teacher groups to come up with the program outline, so they had significant input throughout the process.”

But actually getting access to the classrooms themselves is another matter. Since launching the program last year, however, Hill notes his managers have been able to get into “well over 50 percent of the classrooms” in districts they serve, “and that percentage keeps increasing. As one manager has success and talks to another school district, word gets out, and it feeds off itself.”

One of the especially appealing parts of the program for the younger students is the new mascot, Lift-Off, who's a blue, human-size, padded star (plucked from the Sodexho logo), that hands out activity sheets, relays rhyming narratives and generally entertains children while they learn about nutrition. “Ideally, we try to get someone like a principal or teacher to wear the Lift-Off costume, and that way they can get in with the kids and see the difference this approach makes through their eyes,” Hill says. Nutrition-oriented games and prizes supplement the program.

As this next school year begins, Sodexhomanaged middle schools will roll out the new Performance Zone program, aimed at secondary school-aged children. According to Hill, this will emphasize fitness, nutrition and safety. “Community service boards in all secondary schools will have posters with physical activity topics, nutrition topics and takeaway brochures. The program logo will be tied to items on the cafeteria line and will list calories and other nutrition information.”

Although the company went back through standard recipes to identify items that fit with the program criteria, corporate chefs are also set to launch new recipes each month for schools. “One of the fun and healthy new things they've come up with will be ‘Cyclone Salads,'” Hill says. “They'll be comprised of various tossed salads ñ from Caesar and Mexican to Asian ñ but they'll be wrapped in an open-ended, cone-shaped tortilla, so kids don't need a fork to eat them.”

School Board of Sarasota County
Osprey, Florida

Summer heat

Sarasota County made hot meals the focus of its summer feeding program.

Already an award-winning district for its exemplary children's summer foodservice program (with a USDA Sunshine Award and Florida Department of Education recognition to prove it), the food and nutrition department of Sarasota County schools decided to “take it up a notch” last year, according to Director Beverly Girard, MBA, MSRD, SFNS.

Set up by the USDA as a cold meal service (usually with grab-and-go type offerings), summer lunches are often the only meal many children receive daily. So Girard and her staff petitioned for and received a waiver from the USDA to serve hot meals instead last summer. “Hot meals are a better way to get a sufficient amount of calories into the kids,” she explains.

To gear up for the expanded service, the department purchased new holding equipment and rented extra vans for delivery to the 40 different sites the program services. These range from certain schools open during the summer to Boys & Girls Club buildings, churches, community centers, and “wherever kids congregate.”

Deciding to go with those hot meals that are particularly popular during the school year, Girard and her staff developed a menu of Sloppy Joes; oven-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, green beans and fruit; casseroles; macaroni and cheese; soft tacos; and hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Baby carrots and fresh fruit rounded out many of the meals, and cold beverages were always available.

“We had really positive feedback from everyone,” says Area Supervisor Fran Messer. “There was a much better acceptance from the children, and a complete buy-in from the staff. It's hard to maintain the cold temperatures in Florida in the summer anyway, and all the sites where we serve are airconditioned, so it's not too warm for the kids to eat a hot meal.”

Polk County School District

Got milk?

Polk County is working with its dairy supplier to offer fat-free flavored milk that is lower in sugar and more healthful for students than traditional flavored milk products.

Marcia Smith, director of foodservices for Florida's Polk County Schools, is wellknown within the industry for her innovative efforts to both provide nutrition education to students and families, and to find ways to get nutritious foods consumed by her students. Among them: her Wee Care program to introduce kindergarten students and their parents to the foodservice department; annual food fairs, recipe contests, and food-court-style serveries to promote more healthful dining; and a breakfast-onthebus program that feeds students whose bus will arrive too late to allow them to participate in the regular school breakfast. To many, it seems Smith is never at a loss for something new to try.

Lately, it's been a very simple idea that's got her excitement rising. “We just finished taste testing a new milk product that's lower in fat and sugar than what we've been offering ( one-percent and two-percent, gabletop milk cartons),” she reports. “We're the first schools to test it, and the results back from the student panels are very positive.”

Smith likes the idea of increasing milk consumption because of its obvious nutritional benefits, but what excites her is the success she's had at offering something “ students want instead of carbonated beverages.”

The new product, which comes in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors, is made with sucralose, so it has 25 percent less sugar than other flavored milks, according to Smith. Many directors find that students won't even touch standard fat free milk; but the new product, combining skim milk with nonfat dry milk, has the thicker consistency students like in a one-or two-percent milk, yet is fat free, she says.

“Students say the vanilla flavor tastes just like a milk shake, and high school girls were particularly interested in seeing the products offered at school.” Although the milk is available in eight-ounce paper cartons as well as 10-ounce plastic “chugs,” Smith has opted for just the 10-ouncers, which she'll price at 65 cents (20 cents more than the standard half-pint containers she sells a la carte).

“We'll still offer the milk we always have, but we want to bring this in as another option. We think the ten-ounce, plastic container will appeal to older kids who are ready for a change, and we hope it keeps them away from other, less healthful beverages.”

Oak Hills Local School District
Cincinnati, Ohio

Expanding access

“We all know the saying, ‘a hungry child does not learn,'” states Cincinnati's Oak Hills School Foodservice Director Linda Eichenberger, explaining her decision last year to keep the high school cafeteria open continuously from 7:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. “Some kids are up at six in the morning. By ten o'clock, they're hungry again.”

Situated in the commons area, surrounded by study halls, the cafeteria now serves as a near all-day healthful snack shop, offering grab-and-go salads, cold sandwiches, fresh fruit, water, milk and juices, and even a few self-serve hot items during traditional down times. Vending machines are shut off now during all the hours the cafeteria is open, so if a student wants something to eat, there's no doubt it's going to be a healthful choice.

Eichenberger says a side benefit of the extended hours is a $400 a day sales increase— without added labor costs. “Even if the cafeteria weren't open, we would have someone there filling milk machines and doing other miscellaneous jobs anyway. So with rotation, it's easy to keep someone available to cashier. We're able to work it all in.”

Eichenberger throws in some healthful temptations, too, such as offering long-running discounts on apples (15 cents), or lowering milk prices from 35 cents to 25 cents. “Now students can get two milks for 50 cents, versus water at 75 cents or a sports drink for $1.25. After we changed the pricing, milk sales increased about 50 percent.”

Feedback regarding the extended hours has been “all positive,” she notes. “ Attendance is up, the students are not so rowdy, and teachers say they're learning better. There have simply been no negatives from this effort,” she says. With those kinds of results, Eichenberger is now contemplating reopening the cafeteria at the end of school, when the vending machines would otherwise be brought back on line, in order to offer students more nutritious snack choices then, too.

Hardin County Schools

Equality through technology

COPING WITH PEER PRESSURE. Hardin County de-emphasized its a la carte line to make healthful school meals a favored choice of students
POS-ITIVE RESULTS. Hardin County credits a new POS system with helping to generate a 30% boost in participation.

Spiffy new high school cafeteria designs. Eye-catching, kiosk-style stations. Revamped menus and promotions.

Like many other directors, Janey Thornton, director of child nutrition programs for Hardin County Schools in Kentucky, thought such improvements would be just the trick to punch up lackluster school meal participation rates and get more students to eat a nutritious lunch. And to a large degree, she was right.

But after unveiling such program changes in her district a few years ago, one significant problem remained: students eligible for its free-and-reduced school lunch program were still not participating in the numbers they should have, many because of anxieties that they would be singled out at the cash register. Since school lunch represents the best chance many of those students might have to eat a substantial and nutritious meal on any given day, Thornton viewed this lack of participation as a serious issue.

“We found that free-and-reduced students weren't eating because peer group pressure suggested it was only cool if your meals came from the a la carte line; since some students couldn't afford that, they would choose to skip the regular school lunch altogether.”

As a first step to eliminating that issue, Thornton worked with her team to virtually eliminate the a la carte line; instead, many of these items were offered as part of “bundled” meals that met USDA lunch requirements. She also introduced a new, “equitablefor-all” POS system that uniformly processes student meal purchases.

Together, the revamped meal program and POS system helped Thornton realize the 30 percent jump in participation she'd been looking for (from 60 percent to an impressive 90 percent ).

The POS payment processing system uses a debit approach, with parents funding the students' accounts (unless they qualify for free meals). But instead of swiping a debit card, students simply input the last six digits of their social security number into a numeric pad as they go through the meal line, before they make their meal selection.

By the time a student reaches the register, his or her photo I.D. has popped up on the cashier's computer screen (to verify identity and prevent any abuse with “borrowed” numbers). The cashier then uses a touch screen (“just like at McDonald's”) to input each student's selection, and the transaction is automatically tallied through the system software, indicating only if a cash amount is due. This happens only if a student's account is depleted, or if a student not have an account at all. The screen does not reveal the account status or balance. “No one—including the cashier— can tell whether a student is free, reduced or full-pay,” Thornton reports.

Because the system avoids the use of actual debit cards (“too much like a ‘lunch card,' and too easily lost,” she says), and is easier for parents than doling out daily lunch money, almost every family that pays for lunch—whether a full or reduced amount— uses it, she says.

“This has helped tremendously with the overall success of the program,” Thornton says, “because the bulk of that increase in participation rate comes from free-and-reduced kids.” Nutrition for all. As it should be.

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