July 2012 Issue

Innovators in School Nutrition
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 7 P. 28

Dietetics professionals have launched extraordinary programs to improve the health of the next generation.

Now that the new federal standards for school nutrition have been announced, more students are piling their lunch trays with healthful fruits and vegetables, hearty whole grains, and better-for-you versions of their favorite meals. However, some school districts decided long ago not to wait for a federal mandate to begin providing more healthful meal options in their schools—and, as a result, they’re way ahead of the game. These districts have developed innovative programs they continue to fine-tune, and they have plans to introduce more to ensure the health and well-being of the nation’s youths.

Today’s Dietitian profiled four such school districts across the country known for their extraordinary school nutrition programs. They’re offering healthful meals to various ethnic groups, embracing the local farm-to-school movement, baking instead of frying, creating fresh foods for vending machines, cooking from scratch, developing sampling programs, and offering fruit and vegetable bars kids love. Read about some of the groundbreaking work of pioneering dietitians and other school district professionals that’s paying huge nutritious dividends.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Miami-Dade, the fourth largest school district in the country with about 347,000 students, sees kids from various parts of the world roaming its halls. “Miami being a port of entry for the Western world brings many people from this side of the hemisphere,” says Carol Chong, MA, RD, LD/N, director of food and menu management for Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who notes that students hail from Central and South America, the Caribbean islands, Europe, Asia, and beyond.

As you might imagine, the diversity of Miami-Dade’s student population also brings varied tastes and cultural preferences, something Chong says the district has worked hard to address in its daily food offerings.

Depending on the weekday, Miami-Dade students may have the universal Hispanic dish arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), roasted Cuban-style pork and plantains, Jamaican beef patties, Asian-style chicken chunks with oriental-flavored rice, or Southern favorites such as breaded baked chicken, collard greens, and corn bread.

To ensure the healthfulness of its ethnic options, Chong says commonly fried selections such as Southern chicken and Asian rice are baked instead, adding that all school menu items must meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as the district’s wellness policy to make it onto students’ trays.

Healthful offerings also abound outside Miami-Dade’s cafeterias through the district’s healthy vending program. “We offer low-fat yogurt and fruit with low-fat and whole grain granola, various sandwich wraps using spinach or tomato tortillas, Asian chicken lettuce wraps, [and various salads],” Chong says.

To get kids on board with the healthful vending movement, Miami-Dade got local chefs involved with the project. The chefs worked with foodservice staff to develop recipes, which were taste tested by students. When items got the go-ahead from students’ palates, staff members were trained in preparation techniques and merchandising.

Such innovation in school food is nothing new to Miami-Dade. “We banned trans fats five years ago, eliminated sodas about seven years ago, and only offer 100% juice, water, low-fat or skim milks, and sports drinks as beverages served on all campuses for students,” Chong says. “We had our pizza crust made up of 51% whole grain several years ago, and this year have only whole wheat sliced breads and buns for our sandwiches and toast. We serve fresh fruit and vegetables at both breakfast and lunch daily.”

One thing all districts profiled here have in common is that none are resting on their accomplishments thus far—they all have more innovative ideas in the works for how to get more good food into their students’ stomachs. For Miami-Dade, that innovation comes in the way of a food truck the district plans to use for a Summer Feeding pilot program.

Working off the gourmet food truck idea that’s been featured on TV’s Food Network, Chong says they expect to take the truck to various underserved neighborhoods in the county and offer the same fresh and healthful foods provided during the school year to kids on summer break.

“Food insecurity is all year long, and school meals are available only when school is in session. We hope to continue to provide nutritious meals to children during this time when school food programs are minimal,” she explains.

Saint Paul Public Schools
With approximately 37,000 students, Saint Paul Public Schools may house just a fraction of Miami-Dade’s student population, but it’s Minnesota’s second-largest school district. Students here represent numerous ethnicities as well, speaking more than 70 languages and dialects. At Saint Paul, 73% of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, says Jean Ronnei, SNS, director of nutrition and custodial services for Saint Paul Public Schools.

Though smaller in size, the district’s work to get students to eat healthfully is no less noteworthy. You could say Saint Paul has hopped aboard the fresh-and-local train, but this is nothing new to them. To take advantage of the region’s local bounty in schools, the district joined a national partnership in 2008 funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation called School Food FOCUS.

“Through our work with FOCUS, we were able to increase the number of locally grown produce items we offer” in various school meals, Ronnei says, including local apples, onions, peppers, cabbage, and cucumbers.

Due to the region’s growing season, Ronnei says most of the locally grown produce is served in the fall. To extend their local reach beyond produce, she says the district also has “formed partnerships with local poultry processors that enable us to serve locally grown chicken drumsticks and turkey sloppy joes throughout the school year. We also have purchased locally grown flaxseed for our baked breakfast items and used locally produced honey on our cornbread.”

The district must be doing something right because Saint Paul eventually decided to implement an online recipe-sharing program in response to the barrage of requests they were receiving from parents, students, and other school administrators who wanted to make the popular school meals—what Ronnei refers to as Healthy Hits—themselves. “We’re happy to share our recipes with families who may want to make their child’s favorite school lunch item at home as well as with other school districts interested in serving some of our items,” she says. “In September of 2011, we [also] started printing a lunch or breakfast item recipe on the back of the menu each month.”

In another effort to increase students’ fruit and vegetable intake, Saint Paul offers all-you-can-eat fruit/veggie buffets, called Unlimited Choice Bars, offered at all schools in the district. The bars feature lots of fresh produce, including salad greens, fruits, and other fresh vegetables, as well as vegetarian protein offerings such as cottage cheese, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and bean and whole grain pasta salads.

Students are also encouraged to boost their produce intake through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which, through a USDA grant, allows the district to serve a daily fruit or vegetable snack at elementary schools where more than 50% of students receive free or reduced-priced meals. “Currently, we have 29 schools participating in the program,” Ronnei says.

Saint Paul also offers a Breakfast to Go (B2G) program, through which healthful breakfast items are offered at no cost to all students throughout the district, Ronnei explains, noting that the popular B2G choices are fresh fruit, 100% fruit juice, whole grain cereal, low-fat yogurt, and district-baked breakfast muffins.

In the future, Ronnei says she plans to get parents more involved to ensure everyone’s on the same page regarding school nutrition. “We plan on connecting with Saint Paul Public Schools’ different ethnic populations by presenting an overview of our programs at the Parent Advisory Council meetings that are held throughout the school year,” she says. “We piloted one such event at our central kitchen, and it was a great hit. Parents toured and sampled various foods, heard about food safety and nutrition, and had a typical school meal.”

Burlington School District
The number of students enrolled in Vermont’s Burlington School District is roughly 4,000, and the district has a free and reduced meal rate of about 56% districtwide. Its population is also diverse, with more than 60 languages spoken in its high school alone. Though many wouldn’t envision Vermont as an exceedingly ethnic part of the country, Doug Davis, SNS, director of foodservice for Burlington Schools, explains that Burlington is a refugee resettlement community, which helps account for its diversity.

“In Burlington, we’re very fortunate to have the diversity of ethnicities and cultures because it really impacts the culture of the school in a positive way,” Davis says. To address this diversity in the student population, Burlington offers various ethnic meals throughout the school year at its high school, highlighting a different region of the world each week. 

Regarding the ethnic options, Davis says, “We use local foods in those dishes when possible to show kids who are new to the community that the foods they know and love can be replicated here while also giving kids who are from here the opportunity to try foods from other cultures.”

However, one need only look to Burlington’s farm-to-school program for its local efforts that really stand out. The farm-to-school movement started here in the early 2000s with various surveying efforts made possible by a USDA grant given to Shelburne Farms.

After a few basic first steps—opening salad bars and offering more fresh fruit—the tests started in 2003. “Our first taste tests were really more about white bread vs. wheat bread, American cheese vs. cheddar cheese, trying to get kids open to the idea of trying different foods, not necessarily local at that time,” says Davis, who notes that the new whole grain regulations will be a cinch for Burlington students, who have been eating whole grain products for the last decade.

After the kids were officially on board with those changes, the real local revolution started, and so began the taste testing of baby carrots vs. local carrots and Vermont apples vs. Washington or Oregon apples. While Davis is quick to praise the produce from the Pacific Northwest, especially since Vermont “would starve without it” because “we can’t grow all we need,” he also notes the value that comes with knowing what foods are grown nearby. In 2003, Davis estimates the district used 300 or 400 lbs of local food; they’re now using more than 100,000 lbs, contracting with 23 different farms. In addition to produce, Burlington uses local beef as well as local chicken drumsticks and dairy.

Another innovative program that grew out of the farm-to-school project is the statewide Vermont Junior Iron Chef program, a joint fundraiser between the Burlington School Food Project and farm-to-school nonprofit Vermont FEED that aims to showcase local foods and help other Vermont schools join the local movement.

With the fifth annual Junior Iron Chef competition held earlier this year, 71 teams and about 1,200 participants and spectators came together for some culinary competition with a greater goal of “getting kids who are interested in food and food systems connected to the foodservice directors within their schools,” Davis says.

For the competition, students are required to include and highlight certain local foods in their recipes, so they must reach out to local farmers in their area to practice before the competition. Not only does it educate students about local foods, but “it also allows farmers to get involved in the program within their school,” Davis says.

“The fact that kids will now cook with squash, beets, parsnips, and kale really changed the way they look at food and the role schools can play in the food system within their community, within their school, and inevitably within their state,” Davis adds.

Local foods may be the foundation of Burlington schools, but Davis is far from satisfied. He has lots of ideas for new ways to get kids to eat more good food, one of which is an apple orchard the district plans to establish at one of its schools in the spring of 2013.

“The goal and the plan are to cultivate apples that are native to Vermont and many of which are hybrid apples that aren’t being raised anymore. My vision is that there will be information at each tree, with 15 to 20 trees where kids can learn about the variety.”

Bethel School District
The farm-to-school movement also has picked up speed in the western half of the country, particularly in Bethel School District in rural West Eugene, Oregon, which has 11 schools and 5,600 students. With 60% of students participating in the free and reduced-price meal program, Bethel offers free breakfast throughout its schools, and each school has its own production kitchen.

To offer the freshest foods to its students, Bethel has forged close relationships with multiple local farmers and food producers. “We started our local purchasing program with assistance from Willamette Farm and Food Coalition,” says Jennie Kolpak, RD, nutrition services director. “They had done the groundwork in identifying local farms who were interested in partnering with schools.”

For its first foray in the local movement, the district purchased apples since they used them in large quantities. “They’re not highly perishable, and they were readily available at a competitive price,” Kolpak says.

Though she was initially skeptical when making that first call to Detering Orchards in July 2008, there haven’t been any problems, and today Bethel purchases all the apples it can from Detering’s.

While the school district first bought produce directly from farms, Kolpak says it changed its purchasing model two years ago. Currently, the district acts in a partnership among contracted produce vendors and farms, which has allowed it to increase how much local produce it can buy.

Besides the fresh produce offerings, Bethel also bakes a good percentage of its foods in its own bakery, ensuring the use of high-quality ingredients in school meals. “Bethel incorporates made-from-scratch recipes in our meal plans every single day,” Kolpak says. “We exclusively use a canola oil and applesauce blend for baking, and we use locally sourced red hard wheat flour in all our baked items.

“Obviously, when you’re producing the product yourself, you gain a tremendous amount of control over the nutritional content because you can adjust the ingredient contents. By cooking from scratch, we’ve been able to lower the sodium, fat, and saturated fat content of our menus, and we’ve been able to increase fiber.”

Bethel also does a great job of providing its students with the nutrition education necessary for long-term wellness. “Our Farm to School program has many educational components,” Kolpak explains. “The first is our districtwide Harvest of the Month program, where each month an Oregon-grown fruit or vegetable is highlighted in our districtwide menus.”

Posters featuring the monthly items (along with a picture of the farm it came from) are displayed in all cafeterias and are used in age-appropriate lesson plans to illustrate the concept and educate students about the benefits of these local foods.

To educate kids further, Kolpak says the district sends some of its fourth-grade classes on farm tours to harvest produce. Then they’re taught how to cook with it after returning to their classroom. Moreover, seven of Bethel’s schools have functioning school gardens, which Kolpak says are intended to help students understand where their food comes from and how it gets from the ground to their plate.

“Four of our schools are recipients of the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” Kolpak adds. “At these schools, a different fresh fruit or vegetable is highlighted daily. Then the item is delivered to all the classrooms for the students to sample.”

Bethel Nutrition Services also uses social media to market its nutrition efforts and get students and parents involved in advocating good nutrition. “We have our own Facebook page,” says Kolpak, noting that she’s still waiting for the medium to catch on with more students. On its Facebook page, featured menu items are highlighted and food programs explained in detail.

“We wanted a public outlet to showcase what we’ve been able to accomplish, both to counteract many of the negative images surrounding school nutrition and also to offer information to other school districts that may be interested in what we’re doing,” she says. “I think the visual representation is key.”

Besides evolving its social media platform, Bethel also has its sights set on new projects. “In the fall we’ll be launching an educational component in the cafeterias using MyPlate as the model for teaching students how to self-select appropriate meals,” Kolpak concludes.

— Juliann Schaeffer is an associate editor at Great Valley Publishing Company and a frequent contributor to Today’s Dietitian.