31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: A Toast to Winter Break

Like many folks in the nutrition world, I’ve had a very busy fall – but it’s nothing compared to the intensity of day-to-day operations in school food programs. Up early to serve breakfast and staying late for meetings … applying for grants and rolling out new programs … building farm to school relationships and creating cooking classes … coping with shortages of high demand products and breathing deeply through other round of school lunch bashing … trying to find good employees and handling school closures for storms or bomb threats … for all of this and more … THANK YOU!!

To all those who work in school nutrition, a toast to a job well done and a well-deserved winter break. Here’s hoping that you enjoy your favorite beverage (wine, sparking grape or hot cocoa), find time to renew your enthusiasm for feeding children well, and enjoy all the blessings of the season.

A Toast to All School Nutrition Heroes

A Toast to All School Nutrition Heroes

We’ll finish up the 31 Days of #RealSchoolFood over the holidays … celebrating with your photos and success stories. Happy Holidays!

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Holiday Fruits and Veggies = FUN

Social media has been full of holiday food art. Even ChooseMyPlate.gov got into the act with a very fun snowman sandwich on popcorn snow next to a pea pod tree. While there’s plenty of cute Christmas sweets and treats floating around out there, I’m personally most impressed with the already-very-busy ‘lunch ladies’ and food dudes who go out of their way (maybe on their own time) to make fruits and vegetables special for children. This wonderful winter scene came from Maureen Williams Voll, at Saint Patrick School, Terre Haute, Indiana. I know that Maureen struggles to find even a few minutes for art, so this is all the more impressive: “A little holiday food art before we head off for vacation. The kids have been asking for food art, as we haven’t done any in a while. Our gift to them, and they LOVED it!

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick's School, Terre Haute, Indiana

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick’s School, Terre Haute, Indiana

This simple broccoli Christmas tree was decoration on the serving line at West Chatham Elementary today in Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, Georgia. Thanks to Director Lydia Martin for proudly sharing what her staff had created.

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

Flat Veggie Trays have been very popular on Pinterest, including the School Meals That Rock Christmas Food Fun board. These two come from districts at opposite ends of the country – Coppell ISD in Texas (L) and South Haven in Michigan (R). Easy to make – and very fun for students!

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

School lunch can be very festive without being ‘arty’ both this Greek Pizza from Mast Way Elementary Oyster River Child Nutrition, New Hampshire, and the Broccoli Salad from Shaw School, Millbury, Massachusetts, are deliciously colorful examples. Thanks to every school nutrition professional for preparing beautiful, delicious and often fun food for hungry children. Enjoy your winter break – we hope some cooks for you!

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Taste Tests Are Terrific

Two FB photos inspired today’s post – both from districts that I admire. The first is from Lessons from the Lunch Lady, aka Wendy Garman who had the pleasure of meeting at SNAPa meeting last summer. Wendy dedicates her page “to all the little minds I have been blessed to refuel and to all the child nutrition employees who make feeding children a priority” – and often shares the darnedest thins that her small customers say.

Today’s Wendy’s photo showcased a Taste Test of simple roasted kale chips. I was impressed that Wendy was even doing a Taste Test during the holiday rush – and even more impressed with the results she reported: “‘I wish you brought more kale! This stuff is great,’ said a third grader sampling roasted kale chips today. I had very low expectations for this sampling as dark green veggies are not usually listed among kids’ favorites. It was exciting to see how willing everyone was to give it a try and even more amazed to learn that nearly 90 percent of the class enjoyed it.” Plus, the kale was a lovely holiday green!

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Lesson learned from this Taste Test (and nearly every other one ever done) – children’s reactions to food are often very different that we expect. In fact, the fewer expectations that the adults have, the more likely children are to experience new foods for themselves. Often their reaction is more positive than we expect.

My second inspiration was a series of photos from EATS (Eat Awesome Things at School) Park City from a Taste Test of butternut squash. I was first impressed by the beautifully appealing display of the samples. There are some benefits of serving samples in a resort town like Park City, Utah – the “roasted Butternut Squash was perfectly cooked by the esteemed The Farm Restaurant at Canyons Resort.”

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

EATS Park City is doing a really terrific job of engaging community support for #RealSchoolFood. I had the pleasure of meeting with EATS Park City last summer and am impressed with how positively they are working with the school nutrition program and other local businesses. The organically grown squash came from Parker Produce, a 140 year old farm in northern Utah – and the Taste Tests are funded by The Park City Community Foundation and the Park City Sunrise Rotary Club

It is important to remember that while the town has many wealthy visitors a significant number of students have not been exposed to fine dining in local restaurants – or to foods like butternut squash. One elementary school student was concern that the squash contained nuts!

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Another lesson learned: Children may perceive new foods in ways that we cannot even imagine, especially if the food item is an everyday food for us. While Taste Tests may seem easy enough – just put out samples and have kids eat them, it can also be helpful to take a more structured approach. Fortunately, there are two great resources – both free for downloading – to help you make the most of tasting #RealSchoolFood:

In both these guides you will find tips and forms to make Taste Tests more fun, more successful and more effective in expanding student food horizons. Here are some examples of the forms from the Vermont FEED Guide.

Sample pages from Vermont Feed's Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools

Sample pages from Vermont Feed’s Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Chef Robert is a #RealSchoolHero

The School Nutrition Foundation recently announced its 2015 School Nutrition Hero AwardsChef Robert Rusan from Richmond-Maplewood Heights School District in Maplewood, Missouri, is one of the honorees. Robert has been one of my heroes since I started School Meals That Rock in 2011. Very early in the life of our Facebook page, Chef Robert started sending in photos – of his immaculate kitchen, school garden produce and mouth-watering, house-made meals.

Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood, Missouri (2011)

Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood, Missouri (2011)

There are many reasons to honor Chef Robert Rusan. The two that really stand out to me are his ability to connect young people with their food – and his commitment to the freshest ingredients possible. This collage from Food Revolution Day 2014 illustrates both. Serving Asparagus Frittata in a high school would be awesome all by itself, but Robert went way beyond that: “Today MRH Teen Cuisine prepared fresh asparagus frittata. The asparagus are from the school garden at ECC and the eggs are from our own MRH chickens. I would like to give a special shout out to our Seed to Table Coordinator/teacher Chef Almut Marino who organized the day!

Asparagus Frittata, MRH Team Cuisine, Food Revolution 2014

Asparagus Frittata, MRH Teen Cuisine, Food Revolution 2014

It is very difficult to pick out one or two photos which really show the commitment of Chef Robert and his district to fresh food and student involvement. This collage and Robert’s own caption do a pretty good job: “Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students.” To get the full flavor of why Chef Robert Rusan is a 2015 SNF School Nutrition Hero, I recommend going to his Facebook page and scrolling through the photos. I guarantee that you will be impressed!!

Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students

Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students

 

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: MMMMM-Mushrooms in Schools

If you looked carefully at two of the salad bars in yesterday’s #RealSchoolFood post on Salad Bars Bring on the Produce, you may have noticed that they included fresh mushrooms. In the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to work as a nutrition consultant to the Mushroom Council on school-related issues – and I love to eat mushrooms of all types, raw, cooked and dried.

Although it might not seem immediately obvious, mushroom have a lot to offer to school meals. And, the Mushroom Council has made a real commitment to helping school nutrition programs maximize their use of mushrooms in fun and delicious ways with recipes and success stories on the Mushrooms in Schools website. My favorite photo is these fabulous ‘lunch ladies,’ part of ‘Mushroom Week’ in a New Orleans public school where students got learn about mushrooms in the classroom and eat them in the cafeteria. The student-made aprons are marvelously mushroom-y!

Lusher Elementary Lunch Ladies - ready for 'Mushroom Week' in New Orleans

Lusher Elementary Lunch Ladies – ready for ‘Mushroom Week’ in New Orleans

Chef Robert Rusan, winner of a 2015 School Nutrition Foundation HERO Award may not wear a mushroom covered apron but he certainly knows how to maximize the unique umami potential of mushrooms. Known as the fifth taste, umami – the savory flavor of mushrooms – helps Rusan reduce the sodium in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights meals. Salads, stir-fries, pizza, meatballs and pasta dishes – mushrooms can be added effectively to many of students favorite meals and Rusan’s farm to school delights! Read about Chef Rusan’s Mushroom Success, as well as others, online.

Mushroom Creations from Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

Mushroom Creations from Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

For school nutrition directors, as well as home cooks, blendability is one of the most exciting features of mushrooms. Finely diced or chopped mushrooms taste, look, act and perform like ground meat. When mixed with ground beef and other meats, the nutritional profile of finely diced mushrooms allows schools to serve students some of the favorite foods, while meeting the new Meal Patterns. In Cincinnati Public Schools, Director Jessica Shelley diverted USDA beef for further processing with USDA Foods IQF Mushrooms to make a burger patty with beef and mushrooms. Lower calories, fat, and sodium allowed for additional menu choices, including a Turkey Bacon Cheeseburger which fits guidelines – and lower costs as well. Read more about this blendability success story online or below.

Mushroom Blendability Success Story from Cincinnati Public Schools

Mushroom Blendability Success Story from Cincinnati Public Schools

For more about the availability of mushroom blended products, check with your meat processor. Several companies have multiple products. For more about creating your own blended items, recipes and news, visit Mushrooms in Schools.

 

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Salad Bars Bring on the Produce

Schools clearly have a role in providing healthy foods to children. Our data suggest that the most vulnerable students are benefitting the most from school food.” A recently published study by Dr. Madeline Dalton, PhDThe Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth College, confirms that school meals are important source of produce for low-income adolescents. According to her co-author Dr. Meghan Longacre, “Innovation in school food offerings for kids has emphasized increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and it’s working for low-income kids, but the evidence shows that a different strategy may be needed to have the same positive effect on high income kids.”

The innovation the authors refer to includes the requirements of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and changes in Meal Patterns to increase the quantity and variety of produce offerings at school. A quick look at three school salad bars from Southern states – an area not known for its fresh vegetable consumption – confirms that students are enjoying incredible produce options at school.

Lusher High School, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lusher High School, New Orleans, Louisiana

This gorgeous salad bar in a New Orleans Charter School includes everything from common celery to more exotic fresh mushrooms. These teens in this school can clearly enjoy a wide variety of flavors, textures and nutrition along with their lunch entrée. In many schools, teens are to take as many fruits and vegetables as they want. Middle School students in Carrollton, Georgia, can enjoy these colorful choices as part of the district’s Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools initiative.

Carrollton Middle School Salad Bar, Carrollton City Schools, Georgia

Carrollton Middle School Salad Bar, Carrollton City Schools, Georgia

Up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the High School Salad Bar is truly impressive. Like her colleague Dr. Linnette Dodson in the Carrollton, Georgia, Harrisonburg’s School Nutrition Director Andrea Early works hard to source as many local items for the produce bar as possible.

Harrisonburg (VA) High School Salad Bar

Harrisonburg (VA) High School Salad Bar

Of course, the most important question is: Do teens really dig into these beautiful displays and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables? The answer, according to a January 2014 Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative is a resounding success! As reported by the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN) the successful outcomes of salad Bar Implementation included:

  • Increased students’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Most schools reported increased student participation in school lunch (57%)
  • School administrators, teachers, staff, and parents became more supportive of salad bars
  • A majority of schools reported purchasing more fruits and vegetables (78%)
  • Schools used fresh, pre-cut fruits and vegetables for salad bars (81%)

Additional results of the evaluation are outlined in this infographic from the report.

Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative

Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Eaten with a Smile

At a training last summer in Killeen, Texas, a woman came up afterward and said, “I’m just a clerk in a school cafeteria. but I feel every customer that comes through my line the same thing. if you smile when you eat that _______, it will taste better.”

First of all, no one is just a clerk or dishwasher or cook or _________ in a school cafeteria. Everyone plays an important in making sure that hungry children get the food they need to succeed in the classroom. Remember, S.M.I.L.E. = Schools Meals Improve Learning Environments. Secondly, she was right! Things do taste better when we smile and think positively about them – and children are more likely to taste a new food if it is served with a smile .

I love the “12 Days of Great School Meals” campaign that Director Cleta Long is doing in Bibb County School District, School Nutrition Department, Georgia. Through her Eat Right, Be Bright Facebook page and Twitter account, Long is sharing gorgeous meals from around the district, with kudos to the her staff for their food, their decorations and their photos. What I noticed immediately were the smiling faces of the happy children.

Holiday Meal at Morgan Elementary, Bibb County Schools, Georgia

Holiday Meal at Morgan Elementary, Bibb County Schools, Georgia

Morgan Elementary selected this handsome student to present their Holiday Meal complete with a spring of holly. The Holiday Meal included Savory Turkey and Dressing with Gravy, Candied Sweet Potatoes, Green Beans, Holiday Fruit Salad, Cranberry Sauce, Whole Grain Hot Roll and a variety of Cold Milk.” The student is handsome and the food looks delicious. Bibb County is offering a free breakfast and lunch to all students using the Community Eligibility Provision. For some students, this will be one of their most festive and nutrition meals of the season.

Soup and Grilled Cheese, A SUPER Meal at Hartley Elementary, Bibb County, Georgia

Soup and Grilled Cheese, A SUPER Meal at Hartley Elementary, Bibb County, Georgia

I’m now sure if the photographer posed this photo on purpose, but the student sure looks SUPER excited to enjoy his SOUP-ER meal. On the “Fifth Day of Great School Meals,” Hartley Elementary served hot house-made vegetable soup with a crispy grilled cheese sandwich,golden baked ‘fries,” fresh grapes and cold fat-free milk.

Looks like SMILES all around in Bibb County School Nutrition Department – where I’m certain the food tastes as good as it looks!