Industry Spotlight:Changing the Food Students Want

Elementary students from Riverside, Calif., Unified School District enjoy breakfast.

Would you like French fries with that? If you were a student in the Middleton School District in Middleton, Idaho, 20 years ago, odds are you picked up a plate of these for lunch to go with your entree, sans veggies or fruits. But fast forward and fries are hard to come by in the lunch line. Today, school district cafeterias feature an abundant mix of fruits and vegetables.

Superintendents and food service directors nationwide are stepping up their approach to creating a healthier school environment. For some leaders, a healthy lifestyle is a personal and a professional priority.

Start Early and Gradually

Middleton’s Superintendent Richard Bauscher and Food Service Director Barbara Bumgardner, who participated in AASA’s Healthy School Snacks and Beverages Policy Initiative, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Leadership for Healthy Communities, phased in healthier menus starting with younger students whose food preferences were not as well-established. Instead of serving fries every day, they were available just twice a week and then phased out. The new menus nationwide are a direct result of new nutrition guidelines introduced in 2012.

Like many districts, Middleton has increased its marketing efforts to promote healthier foods. Posters and a new website feature called “Spotlight of the Week” promote local farmers and vendors that supply products for the veggies and fruit bar. One week students might learn from the “Spotlight” that eating cantaloupe prevents muscle cramps, while the next week they may find out that butternut squash provides vitamins, and its hard skins were used as utensils and containers by Native American tribes.

Middleton has also focused on altering student behavior and attitude towards school meals. Instead of serving the kids, the food service team left it to the students to serve themselves. The aim is to give them a sense of empowerment in the process.

Stay Steady

The challenge with this “empowered” approach and the new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, however, is when students bypass the veggie and fruit bar. The regulations also require that a portion of whole grains make up a student’s meal.

Regrettably, Bumgardner said, this sometimes means that students argue with the food service workers. She recalled one student who told her he was just going to throw out the vegetables once she rang him up. Legally though, she had to make sure vegetables were on his tray when he left the lunch line.

Nutrition Education

Chicago Public Schools, which also participated in AASA’s Healthy School Snacks and Beverages Policy Initiative, transformed its food system by incorporating aspects of nutrition education into the school curriculum. Leslie Fowler, director of nutrition support services in Chicago, explained that the introduction of the Common Core allowed her and her team to include food, fitness and wellness topics in science, history, and even math classes in some cases. The district’s administration was supportive of offering professional development to teachers on how to weave in nutrition topics into their lesson plans.

Samples and a New Twist

Superintendent Merle Horowitz and Director of Food and Nutrition Eileen Bellew of the Marple Newtown School District in Newtown, Pa., used “out of the box” thinking to successfully encourage children to try new vegetables. The district was an active participant in AASA’s Healthy School Snacks and Beverage Policy Initiative, and made sure the younger children received samples of vegetables, created characters out of legumes and hung them around the cafeteria to get kids curious about the new vegetables. Kyle the Kidney Bean, Gaby the Garbanzo Bean, and Bart the Black Bean all made debuts, with eyes and a smile to the delight of elementary school kids. Posters detailing nutritional highlights of the beans were also displayed prominently around the cafeteria.

Creating a Movement: The California Way

When Nutrition Services Director Rodney Taylor of Riverside, Calif., Unified School District, came to the district 13 years ago, he brought a new vision for the food service program. Taylor thought big: He wanted to instill an entirely new food culture of lifelong healthy eaters in his community. Taylor is a member of AASA’s school breakfast Community of Practice, which is funded by the Walmart Foundation.

He researched different methods of affecting student behavior, from changes in the food menu to placement of food in the lunch line to new furniture arrangements to mimic a student union. Salad bars featuring locally grown produce and “all you can eat” vegetable and fruit bars were introduced.

New chefs performed demonstrations on school nutrition education, and food service workers guided children through the salad bar and encouraged children to eat the colorful whole grains before them. To please the elementary school children, they told them: “I have a rainbow in my tummy.”

One measure of Taylor’s success is that a “movement” and a culture around healthy eating has occurred. He has had kids from Riverside graduate from high school and come back to complain about the food at college. Kids who left Riverside were demanding healthy food when they found their college had none.

Changing the culture of a school community when it comes to healthy eating takes time and patience, said Linda Sceurman, director of nutrition and menu development for Aramark’s education business. Aramark partners with more than 500 districts to offer food services.

The Business Side of Food Services

Food services operations are supposed to be self-supporting and money from the general fund is not supposed to pay for overruns in the food services budget. But drops in participation because students don’t like what’s on the menu can put districts in the hole financially.

Superintendents may consider whether it makes financial sense to outsource.

Growing Complexity

USDA regulations for school meals continue to change. Sceurman explained that Aramark worked with manufacturers over the past five years to reformulate products, and to offer reduced sugar, salt, sodium and trans-fat in food items.

That kind of in-depth testing and work is likely difficult for some districts to manage. They just don’t have the time. Surveying students’ food preferences and examining the data is an important aspect of Aramark’s operations, according to Karen Cutler, Aramark’s director of corporate communications.

All of these factors have contributed to the ease of the transition during the USDA regulations implementation process that districts experienced, said Sceurman. Meal participation through the Aramark program didn’t experience any noticeable dips like they would have in districts that drastically changed their menus from one year to the next to remain compliant.

However, it’s more than just being legally compliant. Like Rodney Taylor of Riverside said when he spoke about the food services department in his district, “It’s about creating a movement, and we are doing our part in the transformation of the food system in our schools.”

Francesca Duffy is digital and advocacy media editor at AASA. E-mail: Twitter: @fm_duffy


Issues to Consider About Outsourcing

A move to an outside food service provider can prove a satisfactory alternative to a department run by inhouse staff. Superintendents should examine the financial, food and menu quality, and staffing ramifications of outsourcing. Kerri Dixon, marketing director for the K-12 education division at Aramark, and Karen Cutler, director of Aramark corporate communications, offer three reasons.

Financial: School districts facing serious budget challenges may find it more efficient to use an outside food-service provider, especially if the district’s current program is not financially stable.

Menu-Planning Expertise: With new USDA standards, there’s an added complexity to running food services for a district. A vendor may bring expertise in tailoring a food program to the needs of the school community.

Employees: “What will happen to district employees?” is a frequent question. Many times the people who work in school lunchrooms are long-time respected members of the community. Some providers will work with districts to find ways to retain employees, which is a major perk for schools.