Professional Standards Training – The Road to a Successful School Year

Another school year has begun!   Menus have been planned, open positions have been filled, equipment serviced, food is ordered…. all we need is our customers!  It is hard to believe that summer is coming to an end.

It seems that I have spent my entire summer thinking about training.  The first part of my summer was focused on getting ready to attend the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference (ANC) in Atlanta, GA.  The second half of my summer was spent planning and preparing for Maine School Nutrition Association’s Annual Conference, as well as training sessions for our own staff as we prepare for the school year.  All of this training – the planning, the organizing, the collaborating, the teaching, as well as sitting in  education sessions myself, has given me a lot of time to think about training and professional standards and to consider the requirements and how to make the most of them.  

Boosting your School Nutrition Brand Pre-Con Session @ #ANC17
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
session at #ANC17

Even though I have been working in School Nutrition for 20 years, this year’s ANC in Atlanta was only my 5th time attending SNA’s Annual National Conference.  I have attending ANC the past 5 years – Kansas City, Boston, Salt Lake City &  San Antonio and this year, Atlanta.  The past two years at ANC have been different for me, because I was involved, not only as an attendee, but also as a presenter.  As a presenter, I was pushing my own limits and stepping out of my comfort zone… co-leading Pre Conference sessions, as well as teaching education sessions.  Not only was I stretching my limits by being a presenter, but I also made a conscious decision to connect & network with other school nutrition professionals from around the  country… not just from my own “neck of the woods”.

Spending so much time thinking about & attending trainings has let me to several conclusions about staff training & professional standards… and the strategies for making the most out of the trainings you & your staff attend:

1.  The Exponential Effect of training with professionals from many different districts/areas.  

    I am certain that many School Nutrition Directors opt to train their staff in house, which is likely the most economical means for meeting the Professional Standard training requirements.   However, when school nutrition professionals gather together from different areas for training, the diversity increases the learning exponentially!  Staff gain new insight, ideas & energy from other school nutrition superstars from neighboring districts, from neighboring states, from across the country!  It is so powerful to share with other school nutrition professionals – kitchen staff, cooks, managers & directors – from all across the state, or all across the country to learn that our challenges are so similar and our solutions are so varied!  In this environment, real change and progress happens!    It is well worth it to plan room in your budget to send your staff to a state school nutrition conference, or even a national conference.  The investment in your staff will lead to a more energized & engaged team.

2.  Hands on Training engages staff.  

Confucius said   ” I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand”.   Are you that kind of learner?  The kind of person who actually has to try something out & do it to actually master the task?  I sure am!  Let’s face it – school nutrition employees are not accustomed to sitting in a classroom environment & just listening!  Our days are spent running, cooking, serving & cleaning.  Hands on trainings, such as culinary boot camps are much more engaging because staff have the opportunity to learn and practice  new skills. 

Culinary Training in RSU #14

At our Maine School Nutrition Association conferences and at our trainings in our district, hands on trainings are often the trainings that receive the best feedback and highest ratings.  Our most recent staff training day included a “Very Veggie” Culinary Boot Camp, where our team divided up into 7 groups, with each group preparing 3 recipes from a particular vegetable.  We had the Corn Team, the Zucchini Team, the Carrot Team, the Cauliflower Team, the Broccoli Team, the Green Bean Team and the Squash Team!  Each team received training on knife skills & the necessary cooking methods, and at the end, we feasted on 21 different vegetable recipes!

Lots of these recipes will make an appearance this school year, either on a Try It Tuesday or as part of our regular menu.  And now, our staff is ready to go, recipes in hand!  They’ve made the recipes & sampled them.  Now they are ready to serve them to our customers, the students!

3.  Never Stop Learning, Never Stop Training!

The professional standard training requirements for staff development have given school nutrition pros an excellent opportunity to build themselves up professionally.  Choose trainings strategically – learn new skills!  Stretch & Grow!  When you… or your team… stop stretching and growing, chances are good that your business will also stop growing.  

If you are just starting the school year, and you and/or your staff still need some or all of their professional standard training hours, consider attending a state-wide or national conference where the diverse learning and connections can have a lasting impact.  Consider attending a training that includes hands on learning, such as a culinary boot camp, a knife skills training or a training on alternative seasoning profiles to decrease the sodium in school meals!   If your plan is to train staff in house, be sure to mix it up so that employees make new connections and learn from their peers from other schools within district!  New connections will be made and sharing sharing of best practices, as well as challenges, will happen… and that is were the road to success begins!

Enjoy your school year!  I hope you will utilize Professional Standard training requirements to engage your team and get them excited about school meals, because if your team is excited about school meals, the students will get excited about school meals!  #HealthyFoodFuelsHungryMinds!

Eating Through the Alphabet for National Nutrition Month

Alright, I confess.  I am a bit of a “school foodie-geek”. I mean, it’s a good thing, right?  Considering that it’s my job to ensure that the 3000+ kids in the school district where I work are fed school meals that are delicious AND nutritious…

Just about a week ago, I was on vacation in Florida.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing, everything was green and lush.

 It was a school break week for us, and it was so great to “get out of dodge” after being slammed with over 50 inches of snow in just 10 days.  I have to admit, I didn’t want to come home.  I didn’t want to go back to work.  Coming home to several feet of snow on the ground was hard…. going back to work seemed even harder.  Not that I don’t love my job!  I LOVE my job and I’m incredibly passionate about feeding children.  Still… the winter doldrums had set in.   Suddenly though, I remembered that March was just around the corner.  Not only does March bring the promise of spring (even though the wind chill is currently 20 below as I type this), but our biggest school nutrition promotion of the year happens in March, and it lasts the entire month.  I had something to look forward to!

For years now, we celebrate National Nutrition Month by “Eating Our Way through the Alphabet”. The inspiration for our “Eat Your Way through the Alphabet” came from a book by Lois Ehlers that I liked to read to my daughter when she was little.

This beautifully illustrated book lists fruits & vegetables, A – Z, and I was inspired to plan a month on our school menus where we highlighted an A – Z array of fruits and veggies as a way to expose kids to a wide variety of healthy foods.  The month of March seemed to be the most appropriate month for this month long promotion, as March is also National Nutrition Month.  

Coming back from my Florida vacation, I didn’t have much time to wallow in my post-vacation pity party.  I had a month of fun fruits & veggies to plan, procure and promote!  Starting on March 1, our menu featured Arugula, Asparagus, Apples and Applesauce.    

By March 2, we were not only Eating Our Way through the Alphabet, but we were also celebrating Read Across America Day, and Dr. Seuss’s Birthday.  Our B menu featured Truffula Trees Broccoli, Bar-ba-loots Baked Beans, Birthday Blueberry Parfaits and Bananas.

Our A-Z fruits & veggies are promoted on the menu, on our digital signage, on posters, as well as through our social media channels – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  It may take kids a few days to catch on, but by the second week, they are all beginning to wonder… what will the E fruit or vegetable be? (Edamame) How about F? (Fear Factor Taste Test: Fresh Fennel) .  Throughout the month, kids will have an opportunity to sample some new foods such as jicama, kale, napa cabbage, quinoa, and zucchini, as well as some old favorites, such as grapes, strawberries and sweet potatoes. We know we’ve got a winner of an idea when parents stand up at school board meetings, thanking us for introducing their kids to a new food.  Often, the students go home talking about what they had at lunch, and then, because the kids have already eaten the food, parents feel more comfortable purchasing & serving that food at home.
Recently someone asked me what our School Nutrition Program is all about…. what 3 things encapsulated our mission.  I replied that we weigh everything by these 3 statements: 
1. We want to feed students delicious & nutritious food so that they are healthy & ready to learn.

2. We want the students to be excited and engaged in eating healthy, delicious food.
3. We want to inspire children and their families to eat healthy, nutritious food at school AND at home.
Reflecting back on my “3 statements”, I realized that this was why our “Eat Your Way through the Alphabet” promotion is our most successful promotion of the school year.  With this month long event, we are feeding kids healthy & delicious food.  We are getting them excited about trying new foods, by offering them on the menu, throughout the month, in a fun environment.   Finally, we are inspiring families to try new foods at home, by exposing children to new foods in the cafeteria environment and by posting recipes on our menus and online.  
We are heading into our second week of “Eat Your Way through the Alphabet”, and I’m excited!  Edamame, Fennel, Grapes, Hummus & Honey Dew…  It’s a great way to focus on nutrition throughout National Nutrition Month.  Last week, at our afternoon cooking club (not part of our Eat Your Way through the Alphabet promotion),  Chef Sam brought out some star fruit that the kids were going to be preparing.  One little boy commented, “Is that Star Fruit?  I have always wanted to taste Star Fruit, but never had the chance!”  

Well, Star Fruit has a new fan! He gave the fruit a thumbs up!  I wonder, by the end of March, how many other new fruits & vegetables he will give a thumbs up to?  We believe that Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds, and that we are Feeding the Future.  Happy National Nutrition Month!

This is not your father’s (or your mother’s) school lunch…

Yesterday morning, I was listening to the news, and the meteorologist was talking about a recent visit to a local school to talk & teach about all things weather related.  As Mr. Weather Dude bantered with the news anchors about the event, he commented on how amazing the school smelled because in the cafeteria, they were baking apple crisp for the school lunch menu.  This led to a conversation about school meals, past & present.  Finally, Mr. Weather Dude commented: “Kids today have it made!”.   Quickly, I tweeted to Mr. Weather Dude, thanking him for his inadvertent shout out to school meals.  He’s right!  When it comes to school meals, kids today do have it made!

I wonder though… how many people were listening… and how many people really got what he was talking about.

We’ve been brainstorming about this a lot lately.   School meals do not look… or taste… like they did in the past: School meals have changed DRAMATICALLY over the past 10, 20, 30, 40 years.  But, when parents consider whether to send a lunch with their child or whether their child will get school lunch, the parent’s frame of reference for school lunch is often what the parent experienced for school lunch when they were in school.  Or how they have seen school lunch portrayed on television or in the media.
If you were eating school meals back in the 60’s, school meals at your school might have looked a little like this:

school lunch in 1966
photo credit Bon Appetit Magazine

or in the 70’s/early 80’s, it may have looked a little more like this:

If parent’s idea of school lunch has been framed by the media – tv & movies… or even worse, viral pictures that they may have been posted on social media, their idea of school meals may look more like this:

These photos were widely distributed over social media as “examples” of how terrible school lunches had become over the years.  Whether these photos were true examples or not, we may never know.  But, here is my point:  School Meals shouldn’t be judges by past experience.  And here’s why:  School Meals have changed drastically over the past 5 or 10 years.  Initiatives such as Farm to School, Chefs Move to School and the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 have made a huge impact on the freshness and quality of the meals.  So, when considering school meals, visit your school’s cafeteria!  Ask if you can eat a school meal with your child, or visit the school nutrition program’s website or Facebook page. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.  Here are some photos of school meals from our own district:

Quesadilla lunch in RSU #14
Panini & Vegetable Quinoa Soup
Chicken Pot Pie with Whole Grain Biscuits
These are just a few examples  from our district, but for more, head on over to our Facebook Page at Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program.   

Its not just us though!  Across the country, schools are stepping up to the plate, serving fresh, delicious, restaurant quality food that meets the USDA guidelines.  Here are a couple more examples from York Schools in southern Maine.  
Delicious School Meals in York, Maine

School Meals that Rock on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, is a great place to check out what is happening in school cafeterias across the country, and if you are a school nutrition professional, it is also a fantastic place to get inspired!  
There is one other thing about school meals that does not get talked about very often.   Frequently, the lunches that students bring from home (brown bag lunches) are nowhere near as nutritionally complete as a school lunch provided by the school cafeteria.   A study by Tufts University, and published online in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that only 11% of lunches from home included a vegetable, only 17% contained a dairy product, and while many student had water packed for their beverage, a significant number had a sugar sweetened beverage packed for the drink.  It is not uncommon for us to see a child in the cafeteria with a package of some sort of crackers and a drink as his or her entlunch.    

School lunches provide BOTH fruit & vegetable choices, as well as protein, whole grains and milk. They are power packed with nutritious foods and a great value every single day!

I urge you to check out your school’s school nutrition program.  Perhaps they have an online presence on social media, or a website you can visit.  Perhaps you can stop by for lunch with your child, though I recommend calling first so that the cafeteria is sure to have enough food.  No matter what you do… it’s time to give school meals a second look!  You’ll be happy that you did!    Check out this great video, made by the School Nutrition Association:


Am I the only one that always, without fail, starts singing Aretha Franklin when I think about respect?   The queen of soul sure knows how to command some respect…  “All I’m askin’
Is for a little respect… just a little bit, just a little bit”.

The issue of respect came up this past week, and I starting thinking about ALL that school nutrition professionals do behind the scenes to support the education learning environment.  First and foremost, we ensure that students are well fed, well nourished.   It’s what we are called to do – its as simple as that.  Or… is it simple at all?  

Food is a funny thing.  Everyone has to eat food.  Therefore, everyone thinks that they are an expert on food.  Everyone has an opinion on what is good, what is healthy.  Not a day goes by without a headline or article about some food related issue.  You’ve seen the fads and the headlines.  I don’t need to reiterate them here- gluten, dairy, protein, carbs, fat, no fat, … the list goes on and on.   And while everyone is an expert at “the food they LIKE to eat”, not many people are REAL experts at feeding kids – lots of kids, hundreds or thousands, all at one time – nutritious food.  For that expertise… we look to the school nutrition professional.

Here’s what happened this week that got me going on this.  A new child nutrition manager in my district was concerned that the number of students who had signed up to eat school lunch on a certain day was significantly low, and so she ventured up to the school office to inquire if there was a major flu epidemic or a field trip that we were unaware of.  The administrative support personnel in the office informed our manager that no… there was nothing out of the ordinary going on.  But, perhaps it could be what was on the menu.  Our manager replied that the menu was a favorite, BBQ Chicken, to which the administrative support person rolled her eyes and replied something like, “well there’s your answer”, as if it was the worst menu ever.  

I’ll just stop right here for a second to tell you that our BBQ Chicken Drumsticks are amazing! Rubbed with a signature spice rub, then slow roasted in the oven, and brushed with bbq sauce at the end.   Students love them, staff love them… they taste and smell delicious.   Sometimes, before a student has enjoyed this meal… they are UNAWARE that you can eat chicken that still has the bones in it!  We feel good serving this meal – it is #realschoolfood.  Whole food, cooked on site, and served with delicious sweet potato fries, a school baked whole wheat roll, assorted fruits & veggies and milk. 

This upsets me… and the school nutrition staff because we have worked so hard to change the school nutrition environment.  It wasn’t so long ago that our school nutrition operation was mainly freezer to oven.   Due to changing regulations, combined with a desire to serve more local foods and more whole foods, we have transitioned to a place where the majority of our menu is made from scratch, often using local ingredients, as available.  This has required incredible training and dedication on the part of our staff. You will not find a more enthusiastic, dedicated group of school nutrition professionals.  They have embraced the change… the journey, as we have dedicated ourselves to serving school meals that meet the USDA Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 guidelines, while at the same time focusing on #wholefood and #local food. 

Do we disparage the education professionals for their teaching methods or for their choice of curriculum?  Of course we do not!  We are not educational professionals!  We are not educated in what the best way to teach reading… or writing … or math.  We leave that to the teaching professionals in our district.  And we respect them for what they do!   And all we are asking… “is for a little respect… just a little bit”.   We are tired of the emails and snide comments about the menu, like the comment I received last winter when we had our Super Bowl Fun Friday Breakfast: “whose BIG idea was it to put a DONUT on the menu this morning?”.

The week ended on a better note…   as I sat before my administrators discussing next year’s budget, and telling them about all of our successes, as well as our challenges,  one of the administrators said, “School Meals are integral to the Learning Environment.  We have to support them!”  

Wow, I thought!  Thank you!  All we are asking, is for a little respect… just a little bit!   The time, dedication and effort it takes to feed thousands nutritious meals to the  students in our district (state, country) cannot be minimized!  As my friend Dayle Hayes, of School Meals that Rock says, School Meals Improve Learning Environments.  Its almost like our administrator had the good fortune of sitting in on one of Dayle’s excellent educational sessions.  Maybe he has… either way – he’s got the message!

School Meals Improve Learning Environments
from School Meals that Rock

Children come to school hungry – without food in their bellies, without a lunch in their backpack – every single day.  Hungry children cannot focus on their school work.  And so, as my administrator said, school meals are an integral part of the learning environment.   We are feeding the future!

Let’s all just respect each other for amazing work that we do.  Teachers, school nutrition professionals, technology specialists, custodians & maintenance professionals, ed techs & paraprofessionals – together we can accomplish amazing things.    All we are asking, is for a little respect… just a little bit.  Just a little bit!

Chefs help to Change the Scene of School Nutrition

(… an update from a previous post..)

Great Grains Culinary Boot Camp for our sta

Three years ago, our district made the very strategic decision to hire a chef as part of our school nutrition department’s management team.    At the time, we were knee deep into implementing the nutrition guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), intent on serving the children in our district the healthiest meals possible and striving to maintain our customer base.  Our strategy & goals were for our chef to help us manage these ever changing AND challenging guidelines.   Our plan was to have our chef assist us with recipe & menu development, nutrient analysis, educating and supporting staff to develop culinary skills and techniques, increasing local foods in our school cafeterias, and increasing interest and excitement at the school level by regularly cooking in our school kitchens at “not guest” Chef events.

Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro
works with students in classroom
school garden cooking activity

As I look back at the past 3 years,  I am continually amazed at what a fantastic decision adding a chef to our team was!  I firmly believe that this was one of the best decisions Windham Raymond School Nutrition program has ever made.    At a critical time, when so many school nutrition programs have battled public perception and experienced decreasing participation, our program has thrived and even grown.  Over the past several years, breakfast and lunch participation has been increasing at all grade levels.  It is a frequent occurrence for parents to email us for recipes or comment that they wish THEY had so many great choices for lunch everyday. 

Why a chef??  
A 2015 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has shown that “chef enhanced school meals increase healthy food consumption.”
The study shows evidence that while hosting Guest Chef events at schools can add excitement and lend positive public relations to school nutrition programs, having a chef on staff who tests and develops recipes and trains & supports school nutrition staff results in children learning to like AND enjoy healthy whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The study showed that hiring a chef who works with district school nutrition personnel improved the quality, flavor and palatability of the food, and not only decreases plate waste, but increases school meal participation.   

While our district was not part of this study, it could have been.  The research and outcomes have been mirrored in our district, since hiring our chef, Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro as part of our School Nutrition team.   Chef Sam’s culinary expertise has not only significantly impacted our staff’s training level, acceptance of our menus and our participation but her presence & influence as part of our school nutrition team has encouraged students to embrace nutritious & healthy choices.   
Chef Sam’s duties include developing and taste testing new

recipes & foods, training and supporting staff as we increase “from scratch” cooking, adapting existing recipes to meet current USDA guidelines while maintaining palatability, and consistent culinary skill building with staff to increase productivity, efficiency and safety in the kitchen.  Chef Sam frequently works in the school kitchens, alongside school nutrition staff, making delicious and healthy meals.  This school year, we have been rolling out several new & exciting menu items, as well as working with our own signature herb & spice blends to decrease sodium in our recipes.  Across the board, the students are responding with rave reviews!

happy customers @ Windham High School

Chef Sam is a frequent visitor in classes, weaving good nutrition & healthy eating into our district’s curriculum.  In class, students get to cook recipes such as curried carrot soup & carrot muffins made with school grown carrots.  They also get to taste test recipes & 
name them fun creative names for future menus.  Lessons include learning to read nutrition labels & introduction to new, healthy foods.  After school cooking classes also help to teach students more about healthy cooking and eating, as well as serve as a bridge to our districts families, as we send home samples and recipes and we get to meet parents during pick up time after class. 

Chefs are practically celebrities these days, with so many cooking shows on television and in the media, and school chefs are no exception.  There is incredible excitement when Chef Sam is in the kitchen.  Her delicious & nutritious health centered approach to cooking & eating inspires our menus, inspires our students and inspires us!   Any school district looking to build participation, credibility, excitement and enthusiasm for the school nutrition program should consider adding a chef to their team.  When chefs become part of a school nutrition team, the results are increased school meal enthusiasm, increased participation, decreased plate waste, and most importantly, increased consumption of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains in children. 
Fresh & Local – Lasagna made with fresh pasta

Adding a chef to our School Nutrition team has been a practical, sustainable way to embrace the Chefs Move to Schools movement. Chef Sam has been an integral part of the growth of our School Nutrition Program.  Our school nutrition team has passion & commitment to serving children the healthiest, most delicious & nutritious meals, and having a chef on staff has infused our team with fresh vision for the future of School Nutrition.

National School Breakfast Week

It’s National School Breakfast Week, a celebration of schools that participate in the National School Breakfast Program, and an opportunity for schools across the country to promote the benefits of a healthy school breakfast.   

We all grew up hearing that familiar phrase, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.  It seems that our grandparents and parents drilled it into our brains… and in fact, studies show that 93% of Americans would concur that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Starting the day with a nutritious breakfast puts fuel in the tank, jump starts your metabolism and gives the brain the energy it needs to do the important work of the day.  And yet, only 44% of Americans report starting their day with breakfast on a regular basis.   With that ground work already in place, with more than half of all Americans routinely skipping breakfast,  our challenge with School Breakfast is to teach our youth a better way.  We want to make a healthy breakfast an absolute “must do” part of the day.  Setting aside a week to celebrate the National School Breakfast program gives us an opportunity to get the word out.  All across the country this week, School Nutrition Directors and nutrition advocates are getting the message out: on television talk shows, social media, articles in the news.  The story is this:  School Breakfast Changes Lives!

Here are some fast facts about School Breakfast: 

1. Students who eat breakfast have better attention and memory.
2. Students who eat school breakfast attend, on average, 1.5 more days of school per year and   score 17.5% higher on standardized math tests.
3. The School Breakfast Program significantly improves the cognitive abilities and learning capacities of children.
4. Students who participate in school breakfast show improved attendance, behavior, standardized achievement test scores, and decreased tardiness. 

These are just a few of the benefits of School Breakfast, and yet,  statistics show that only 1/2 of the students that are eligible to eat breakfast at school for free or at very low cost do so on a regular basis.    The data is the same in my own district, where, even though we have had a 95% increase in breakfast participation over the past 5 years, we are still only serving breakfast to approximately 50% of our students who qualify for free and reduced price meals, and just 30% of our students overall.  We have seen growth, thank goodness!  But what about the students that are still not accessing breakfast at school?  Are they eating breakfast at home?  Did they have time? Was there adequate food in the home to ensure that the breakfast was well balanced?

In our district, we have experienced many school breakfast successes over the past 5 years, leading to our 95% increase in breakfast participation (admittedly, our participation prior was so low that we were at risk of canceling our school breakfast program altogether).  However, we have also experiences our fair share of challenges.  

Successes have come slowly and gradually.  Changing and improving the menu, gaining the trust of parents and caregivers (“if I send my child to school without breakfast, will they really have an opportunity to eat?”), hosting fun, themed events to encourage our customers to attend (such as our monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts), keeping on trend with menu options.  It has taken 5 years and a team of incredibly dedicated staff who will make 800 “Olaf” String Cheese Snowman when asked. 

At our middle schools, the school nutrition staff have altered their morning schedules and routines, in order meet the needs of their teenage customers.  At this grade level, we offer grab & go breakfast carts in the hallways, and First Class Room Service Breakfast Carts, during the first period homeroom time.   Encouraging teens to eat breakfast is always a challenge, and it requires a menu that is “on trend” and timing that suits their appetites.  It’s essential that teaching staff be “on board”, and that they understand the long term benefits of school breakfast.

Middle School Breakfast Cart

Flexibility is key: flexibility of all the stakeholders.  Custodial staff, transportation staff, school nutrition staff, teachers, administration – all must be willing to collaborate.  The end result is well fed students who are ready to learn and succeed in school.  If students are hungry, their focus will be on their stomachs, they won’t feel well, won’t be able to concentrate.  

Challenges remain lurking around every corner, making it necessary to always be flexible, always willing to change course, change directions.  A change in administration can change scheduling, which in turn can adversely affect breakfast service.  Teaching staff & administration are always looking to fill every minute with necessary instructional time. Collaboration is key.  Changes in regulations send us back to the kitchen for recipe development and product procurement.  Labor and budgetary cut backs can also adversely impact a school breakfast program.  

Creativity, collaboration, flexibility and willingness to change – these are the steps we will continue to take until we are reaching all the hungry children, ensuring that they start their mornings well fed and ready to learn.  We’ve come a long way… we have a long way to go.  50% of our students who are experiencing food insecurity are not eating breakfast at school.  We need to reach them, we need to feed them.   They are our future.  We are feeding the future. 

Breakfast wisdom from A. A. Milne

A Recipe for Success

USDA Poster for Healthy School Meals

In preparation for an upcoming trip to Washington DC, I’ve been thinking about reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, and the wild ride that ensued after we embarked with the changes set forth by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.

I’m often asked about why following these guidelines has been successful in our district, while other districts have struggled. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts regarding our “formula” for success. I have boiled down my thoughts into what I call the 5 C’s:

1. Culture: It is really necessary to pay attention to the culture of the area, the culture of your schools, current market trends & market demographics.   What I mean by this is… know your market.  For some districts in the south, finding whole grain grits was a major issue.  Our northern students wouldn’t know what to do if we served them grits, not being familiar with that particular food item.  We faced other challenges, including procurement: finding acceptable whole grain tortillas for wraps, consistent availability of all whole grain items from our distributers, etc.    But, paying attention to the culture means knowing what the kids in your geographical area like to eat & are used to eating, and finding ways to offer similar fare within your own eating establishment and within the USDA guidelines  By giving your customers what they want AND following the guidelines, you will achieve success.  

2. Collaborate: Collaboration is key to the success – Collaboration with administration, parents, staff and students. Building bridges with families, and gaining support from district administrators fosters a culture that welcomes the positive results that change brings.

Having the necessary support from your district’s administrators is essential, but even more important is building bridges and getting “buy in” from the customers – students and parents.  Our district’s after school “cooking club” is a wonderful way to foster the relationship between the school nutrition program and families.  Families get to meet school nutrition personnel, taste actual recipes that are being made and served in the cafeteria.  Taste testing and/or cooking in the classroom with students is also a great way to introduce students to new foods, new recipes and menu items.  Allowing the students the opportunity to name the recipe takes this collaboration one step further.

happy students at “cooking club” sampling
healthy banana chocolate chip cookies

3. Creativity: Creativity helps to keep the changes fresh and new, allowing our customers to stay interested & engaged. Adding creative touches to menus, cafeteria environment and by featuring theme menus, market trends and other innovations creates excitement and generates increased meal participation.

In our district, monthly “Fun Friday Breakfasts” have had a positive impact on breakfast participation at our elementary schools.  We have seen a sustained 30% growth in our breakfast average daily participation by hosting a once a month themed breakfast.  Popular themes include sports themes (think: Super Bowl) and “Frozen” theme, featuring “Olaf” string cheese and hot cocoa muffins.  We have even had an “Angry Bird” Fun Friday Breakfast and a “Fruit Ninja” themed breakfast.  Keep it fun – they will keep coming 🙂

Wear your “Angry Bird” gear to the
“Angry Bird” Fun Friday Breakfast!

Need ideas to boost your school nutrition program’s creativity level?  One good place to start is by following School Meals that Rock on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & of course on Pinterest.  There, you will find inspiration from school breakfast and lunch programs from all around the country. Here are a couple of great links to follow:

4. Communication: We have found that communicating has been essential throughout the change process. Communication = Marketing, and through marketing we have kept our customers & their families informed. Marketing can be done on menus, emails, newsletters, websites, and via social media sites. Families want to know how hard we are striving to provide healthy, nutritious meals.

Social media has become a powerful tool for us.   Offering  photographic documentation of our menu items and events lends credibility.  Growing fresh produce in your school garden?  Post a photo on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and/or Snapchat.  Are students excited about school meals? Post a photo (make sure you have the proper release, of course) of happy students enjoying their school meals. Families want to know & trust that their kids are being fed delicious, healthy meals.

5. Constantly Changing: We are constantly changing and always adapting – as we tweak recipes, adjust menus, re-organizing work strategies and procure new product. It is a lot of work, but extremely rewarding – when you receive a simple ‪#‎Valentine‬ from a student or a note from a parent thanking you for introducing a child to many new foods… it makes all of the work absolutely worth it.

Do you like my hat?

an illustration  from “Go Dog Go
My 2 year old granddaughter is obsessed with the children’s book, “Go Dog Go“.   Throughout the book, two dogs regularly meet up and ask each other “Do you like my hat?”.  In the book, the answer to that question is consistently “No”, until the very end of the book when one of the dogs is wearing an elaborate party hat with many objects being balanced from the hat.  Finally, the answer is in the affirmative.  “Yes, I do like your hat!   

Reading this book, over and over and over, as one tends to do with 2 year olds got me thinking about hats…
Being a School Nutrition Director is a little like the dog at the end of the book.  She is balancing so many items on her fancy party hat, that it is a wonder that she doesn’t fall off of the precarious ladder that she is climbing on.   I often feel that way… balancing all that I do is a little like climbing up a wobbly ladder, trying to keep everything in balance at the same time.  

Private Eye at your Service
Recently, I returned from being out of the district at a state conference for 2 days. As soon as I got back, my staff had me digging and researching some recent Point of Sale transactions to see if I could find out where an error had occurred.  So, I donned my “Sherlock Holmes” hat, and scrutinized the “books” for the morning as I tried to decipher where the errors were.    

At the time, we joked a little about how many different hats a school nutrition director must wear.   Private eye was the top of the list.  But as I worked at solving the financial mysteries that had occurred in my absence , accountant also topped the list.  The accountant hat is never far away, as we always seem to be crunching numbers… not only participation numbers, but also the numbers of our financial picture. Are students paying?  How much is our federal reimbursement this year? If we order milk from this company vs. that milk company, 
can we save a cent or two per carton? One cent really adds up when you are purchasing hundreds of thousands cartons of milk each year.  What price should we charge for student meals this year, and how does the Paid Lunch Equity tool fit in?  Indeed, our accountant hat (and our pencils) are never set aside for very long.  It seems to be the most important balancing act of all….  making sure that we are managing our expenses, all the while ensuring that we are attracting new customers and encouraging our paying customers to pay their balances due.   Keeping all the finances balanced can be exhausting and overwhelming.

Speaking of overwhelming…  working in school nutrition can sometimes be as overwhelming as it is rewarding.  Managing  inventory, staff, meal counts, the changing guidelines & regulations is enough at times to drive you ( and your employees) crazy!  Which is why at times, a school nutrition director needs to don a “therapist’s hat”.  

School nutrition employees are nurturers.  We love to make sure that the needs of children are being met, and feeding them healthy food is how we strive to do that.  But being a nurturer can sometimes lead to exhaustion.   Add to the equation the stresses from home… and a school nutrition director often finds that they are  offering support to staff as they sort out problems and issues that extend well beyond the school cafeteria. 

And we can’t forget some of the most obvious hats that we wear.  The chef hat is one that we must frequently wear, in order to make sure that our meals look and taste good.

Our district is very fortunate to have a full time chef on staff, and she travels throughout the district, from kitchen to kitchen, not only tasting and testing our recipes, but training our staff to do the same: making sure that our menus look and taste appealing every single day.

Of course, balancing the nutrition guidelines is extremely essential, and so a dietitian’s “hat” (hairnet?) is a necessity! With the crazy pace that the federal school nutrition guidelines have been changing, it seems that we are always manipulating the sudoku puzzle of red/orange vegetables, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains & grain equivalents, meat/meat alternate, calories, fat, protein, calcium… on and on it goes.  

Marketing is another absolutely important “hat”.  Marketing can prove very challenging for school nutrition directors, especially when they are already juggling so many other hats!  But without 
marketing, our message and our product may get lost in the busy-ness of everyday life.  Getting our message heard, sharing the news about all that is wonderful, delicious and exciting about school meals is key to maintaining and growing participation in our program.  Marketing school meals can take on many forms, from the “old school” printed menus that are sent home, to blast emails home and websites. Others are using messages on digital screens and marketing via social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other sites in the constantly changing world of social media and the world wide web. Blogging and vlogging (video blogging) are also creative marketing ideas to consider.   

Wearing so many different hats can be exhausting, but it is also extremely rewarding and exciting.  It is certainly never boring!  And so, I will end this where I started it… back to “Go Dog, Go”.  Do I like my hat?  I do!  What a hat! I do like my hat!!!
an illustration from “Go Dog, Go”

I stand for#RealSchoolFood

I stand for & believe wholeheartedly in #RealSchoolFood.  I mean, of course I do…. who wouldn’t?  Would you stand for #FakeSchoolFood? 
School Meal in RSU #14 with Local Grass Fed Beef, Local apple,
fresh lettuce & tomato

The thing is… we’ve been working towards and serving #RealSchoolFood for years now. Many of my colleagues in School Nutrition have been doing the same thing… serving up locally sourced food, Farm to School and #RealSchoolFood.   We’ve been working at this step by step, recipe by recipe.  It is exciting and rewarding… and a lot of work.  It takes a lot of work, a dedicated staff, a district with vision, and … a lot of money.

Our path to #RealSchoolFood didn’t start with a bunch of celebrities supporting a social media campaign, nudging us toward more wholesome food in our child nutrition program.  Our path to #RealSchoolFood began with a vision and a grant.  The vision of our district was to increase local foods & to begin preparing more of our menu items from scratch.  We were fortunate enough to receive grant funds to support our vision.  Grant funds to pay for food service equipment, grant funds to support staff development & culinary training.  Even so… the transition to #RealSchoolFood does not happen quickly or easily.  It is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, but menu item by menu item.  It involves educating our customers, taste testing and nutrition education. 
Believe it or not, our customers frequently come to us without a lot of experience with #RealFood.   We recently had a baked potato bar on the menu, and many of our young students did not even know what a baked potato was.  And we live in Maine, where potatoes are our #1 crop.    And so, in spite of all our efforts to serve and market #RealSchoolFood, our most popular lunch menus are often our most processed items.  Because of this, we educate our customers.  We taste test, we let them name our recipes, we talk to them about the health benefits of eating less processed food.   It’s baby steps, one recipe or menu item at a time.  And we hope it’s working. 
Students at Jordan Small Middle School LOVED our panko crusted
zucchini “fries”.

#RealSchoolFood also costs more money.  At least, this has been our experience.  And with our current federal reimbursement rate of approximately $3.00 per school lunch, we are barely breaking even.  This $3 per lunch is intended to cover all food, supply, labor (including benefits) and miscellaneous costs that it takes to make a lunch.  Cooking #RealSchoolFood takes more equipment, more staff, and more staff training to serve up food that doesn’t go from freezer to oven.  It takes time, culinary expertise, marketing & educating the students and their families.   Our district is fortunate, and because of our vision, we have been able to have a full time chef on staff.  Chef Sam not only works with our staff, developing their culinary skills and working on recipes, she also goes into the classroom and works with the students, taste testing & developing new menu items. 

Chef Sam taste tests curried carrot soup
with a group of students.

I guess all this is to really say – if you support #RealSchoolFood, support greater funding for the National School Lunch Program.  And visit your local school to see what they are serving.  Do they have the capacity to serve #RealSchoolFood?  The equipment? The storage space?  The expertise?  The money? Make sure you understand, not only the USDA guidelines, but also the financial component of the National School Lunch Program, and see what real #SchoolLunch #Superheroes are doing every day… probably in a district near you!

School Breakfast Changes Lives

After a bit of a hiatus that included a broken ankle on the part of my husband, a broken femur on the part of my 91 year old mother, and a new grandchild, I am back.  And I’ve been thinking about school breakfast.  School Breakfast changes lives.  Studies show that students who eat school breakfast miss less school days throughout the school year, score 17% higher on math tests and are 20% more likely to graduate from high school.  And the benefits extend long into adulthood: high school graduates on average earn  $10,000 more than people who do not graduate from high school, and they are less likely to experience food insecurity.  Clearly, breakfast lives up to its reputation as the most important meal of the day.   And yet, while over 21 million students across the United States qualify for free and reduced price meals… less than half of these students are eating breakfast at school.  The data is the same in my own district, and we spend a lot of time wondering why families are not taking advantage of this benefit, and working on strategies to make breakfast more accessible.  

Several of our schools were recently awarded $1000.00 grants from Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign.  The purpose of the grants were to test a variety of innovative breakfast marketing strategies to help determine which are most effective in increasing breakfast participation.  We were excited to receive this boost to our existing breakfast program and were anxious to see if some of Share Our Strength’s strategy ideas would help us to further increase our participation.  As participants in the grant program, we were encouraged to offer breakfast free to all students in our elementary schools on a designated day, to study the impact that a universally free breakfast would have on participation levels.  

At this “free 4 all” breakfast event, we chose to have a simple “Super Bowl” Top Your Own Cereal Bar, inspired by a Kellogg’s  Cereal & Milk pop up event that I happened upon in Times Square last summer.   

Kellogg’s Cereal & Milk Pop Up Store in Times Square..
complete with The Roots in concert.

Student were able to top their cereal bowls with a variety of toppings, including fresh strawberries, blueberries and dried banana chips.  Whole grain muffins, milk & juice selections rounded out the menu.  We planned our event, gained support from building administrators and teachers, and marketed this free event to parents, with the simple message:   Morning Rush got you frazzled?  Leave Breakfast to us!  

The results were phenomenal!  Our breakfast far exceeded our expectations!  Not only did we double our overall  breakfast participation at our elementary schools, we even served 56% more students who qualify for free and reduced price meals….  even though they can eat breakfast for free on any school day!  Making breakfast “free 4 all” made the breakfast a fun occasion and eliminated any stigma that might be associated with eating breakfast at school. Since the “Free 4 All” breakfast, our breakfast participation has remained strong, with count numbers consistently higher.

Now, even before we participated in Share Our Strength’s breakfast grant program, we had been working hard to implement strategies at all grade levels to increase breakfast participation.  The results were encouraging…. and counts were up by anywhere from 30% at our elementary schools to 150% at our middle schools to 50% at our our high school.  We believe that school breakfast supports the educational environment in our school system, and it is our mission to make sure that our students are well nourished and ready to learn.  

At a recent networking session, I was asked to share the key strategies that we had implemented to increase our breakfast participation.  Here are 4 Keys to Breakfast Success that we like to use:

1. Make Breakfast Accessible.  
We use multiple delivery methods to ensure that all students have the opportunity to eat breakfast at school.
  • Traditional Breakfast in the cafeteria.  Students come to the cafeteria at the beginning of the school day and eat their breakfast in the cafeteria as well.
  • Grab & Go Breakfast.  Students get breakfast in the cafeteria or other breakfast access point such as a breakfast cart, or vending machine.  The breakfast is then taken back to the classroom or eaten en route.  
  • First Class “Room Service” Breakfast cart.  At our middle schools, a breakfast cart, fully loaded with reimbursable breakfasts, goes from room to room during the first block of the day.  By utilizing this method, our middle school breakfast participation has increase by 150%. 

  • Extended Hours Breakfast  At our high school, we stay open for breakfast essentially until we switch over into lunch service, so students can access breakfast during a study hall or in-between classes.  
2. Make Breakfast FUN!
In our elementary schools, we host monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts.  A Fun Friday Breakfast is a themed breakfast, with a menu, decorations, etc. built around the theme.  Some of our themes have included Frozen, Angry Birds, March Madness, Winter Wonderland, Beach Party and Halloween.  Sometimes we give our small “prizes” such as stickers or Hawaiian leis, but more often the fun in just celebrating the theme.  Our Fun Friday Breakfasts have led to an increased breakfast participation of 30%.  The fun themes and marketing associated with the event have helped to encourage our youngest students to TRY school breakfast.   Additionally, these FUN events have helped to eliminate the stigma associated with eating school breakfast.  

Scenes from our Frozen Themed Fun Friday Breakfast

3. Make Breakfast Tasty.
Stay current with breakfast food trends and make sure you understand what students like, and how their breakfast preferences can fit within the school nutrition guidelines.  Some of our favorite breakfast items are yogurt/fruit/granola parfaits, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches and whole grain muffins. Taste test recipes and get ideas and opinions from your students.  

4. Market Your Program!
Toot your own horn!!!  This is hard to do but incredibly important.   Make sure you are telling administrators, teachers, parents and students about the importance of eating breakfast.  Make sure to highlight the nutrition, value and convenience of school breakfast.  Share menus, events and highlights through menus, newsletters, emails, Facebook, Twitter, your programs website, etc.  
These strategies are working for us.  We still have a long way to go (there is always room to grow!) ….  but we continue to strategize, innovate, and look for new ways to make sure our students are well nourished and ready to learn.   Maybe by School Breakfast Week in March of 2016,  every student in our schools will start the day with a nutritious breakfast!