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!

 

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Fresh Fruits & Veggies in the Classroom

This is the photo that inspired today’s post. When it comes to school meals, most people think of the National School Lunch Program. Some know about School Breakfast and the recently added suppers in some low-income districts. Many fewer know about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that allowed Cindy Shepherd to serve this awesome vegetable to students in Parkside Elementary School, School Nutrition Program in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Romanesco, Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Orgeon

Romanesco, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

I’ve actually been wanting to write about Cindy for a while because she is one of my school nutrition heroes. She has been with the Grants Pass School Food and Nutrition Service Program for the last 9 years and has been Kitchen Manager at Parkside for 5 school years. Every photo and email that she sends shines with her dedication to serving the best possible meals and FFVP snacks to the 450 students (K-5) at Parkside, like these gorgeous FFVP choices from January 2014.

Pears and Purple Cauliflower, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

Pears and Purple Cauliflower, Parkside Elementary School, Grants Pass, Oregon

All of the FFVP snacks in Parkside are beautifully presented, reflecting Cindy’s love of food and her desire to make new foods appealing to young children. Here’s the program in her own words: “On Tuesdays and Thursdays we send out trays filled with both a fruit and a vegetable for the schools FFVP nutrition break, 900 servings are ready to go at 7 AM.” That’s right folks – 900 servings of gorgeous eye-appleaing fruits and veggie twice a week to children who may have never tasted, or even seen, these produce items.

Parkside FFVP Snack Examples (2012)

Parkside FFVP Snack Examples (2012)

Parkside Elementary currently serves all students free breakfast and free lunch through USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, last year 82 percent of students received free or reduced-priced meals. According to USDA, “The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) is a federally assisted program providing free fresh fruits and vegetables to students in participating elementary schools during the school day. The goal of the FFVP is to improve children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and future health. The FFVP will help schools create healthier school environments by providing healthier food choices; expanding the variety of fruits and vegetables children experience; and increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption.” More details on USDA’s FFVP Fact Sheet.

Clearly Cindy Shepherd is meeting those FFVP goals – and more – at Parkside Elementary. Here’s a collage of students and teachers experiencing a Cuke-a-saurus for the first time in a 2013 FFVP Snack! Have you ever had one? Might be time to try!

Cuke-asaurus (aka Horned Melon), Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Oregon

Cuke-asaurus (aka Horned Melon), Parkside Elementary, Grants Pass, Oregon

 

31 days of #RealSchoolFood: Pinterest is THE Place

Every time there’s a wave of ‘bad school lunch’ photos, like #ThanksMichelleObama (which mostly backfired due to a poor choice of hashtags), people look to School Meals That Rock to respond. Now, thanks to our packed Pinterest page, we can! Thanks to lots of photos from across the USA, we now have 86 boards, 2,618 pins and 1,618 followers.

While we are proud of these numbers, we are not just trying to brag. School food Pinterest boards, like ours, can be incredibly useful when promoting #RealSchoolFood. Just today, a client wanted to know what school salad bars look like, so I directed her to our board School SALAD BARS That Rock. There she could see 40 colorful produce bars in schools from Washington state to Florida. (You could use this page to get some inspiration for upping the game on your local salad bar too!)

School Meals That Rock PINTEREST, School SALAD BARS That Rock (12-2014)

School Meals That Rock PINTEREST, School SALAD BARS That Rock (12-2014)

Or say someone asked you about the fruit choices available in schools? Our most recent pin is the incredible fruit display you see below from one of our district boards CANYONS SCHOOL DISTRICT, Utah, Rocks. This district, along with 17 others and The John Stalker Institute (Massachusetts) have boards on our page. They can pin photos directly to the board and then share their unique URL, like this one for Gooding Idaho Schools (www.pinterest.com/schoolmealsrock/gooding-idaho-school-meals-that-rock/) with their customers and colleagues.

High School Fruit Prep, Canyons School District, Utah

High School Fruit Prep, Canyons School District, Utah

If you’d like a board on School Meals That Rock Pinterest page, send an email to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com WITH the email address used in your Pinterest account. We’ll get you set up with a board asap and you can pin away.

The good news is School Meals That Rocks is not the only Pinterest page in the school food game. Here are three recommendations – if you know of others that we should be following, please let us know.

31 days of #RealSchoolFood: Seasonal Food Art Made Easy

Want to spiff up the food art on your school cafeteria lines? We have one simple tip for you: Follow the award-winning Provo (UT) School District Child Nutrition Services on Facebook and Pinterest. Known by their slogan ITSMeals at Provo School District, this district does an amazing job of using food art to make their delicious, nutritious meals even more appealing to their customers. This fresh mushroom snowman showed up on the lunch lines last week at Dixon Middle School. The scarf is a veggie too, tomato skin!

Mushroom Snowman, Dixon Middle School, Provo, Utah

Mushroom Snowman, Dixon Middle School, Provo, Utah

While ITSMeals at Provo School District features plenty of more time-consuming food sculptures, like pineapple alligators and melon witches at Halloween, much of their food holiday is quick and easy. These non-candy canes are just slices of banana and strawberries. If you staff is stretched too thin to make them for a hundred breakfasts, you can make just a few to decorate the line.

Super Simple Banana-Strawberry Canes, Provo School District, Utah

Super Simple Banana-Strawberry Canes, Provo School District, Utah

And, what’s not to love about a Grinch Kebob? Again, with limited staff time, consider asking some volunteers to help you make some Fruit Grinches – maybe a high school club or FACS class. Or perhaps your PTA/PTO or other parent group? Concerned about sticks with small children? No worries – use a plastic straw or stir stick!

Fruit Grinches on a Stick, Provo School District, Utah

Fruit Grinches on a Stick, Provo School District, Utah

So, our holiday food art tip is simple: Follow the award-winning ITSMeals at Provo school District on Facebook and Pinterest. We are easier to see what their talented staff comes up with these year!

S.M.I.L.E. for Kids: It’s 31 Days of #RealSchoolFood

The recent, but short-lived Twitter hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama, was one more in a long series of efforts to vilify U.S. school nutrition programs. I’m not exactly sure why school meals continue to be a favorite target, but I do know that it’s now time to recognize the improvements and support the #RealSchoolFood enjoyed in thousands of school cafeterias every day.

The 2010 Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) – with new nutrition standards and revised meal patterns – means that schools are now leading the charge to improve the eating habits of American youth. And, the HHFKA is just one of many ‘ingredients’ making school meals something that lunch ladies and ‘food dudes’ are proud to serve from coast to coast. As Health Assistant Marlene Gleim says about Manager Loli Preciado and staff at Woodard Jr. High (Yuma (AZ) Child Nutrition Department), “These ladies cook as if you were going to eat in their actual home. Food made right from the heart!”

Salad Bar, Woodard Jr. High, Yuma, Arizona

Salad Bar, Woodard Jr. High, Yuma, Arizona

Does every school nutrition program deserve a five-star review? No. Is every school meal perfectly balanced? No. While there is room for improvement in some districts, bashing, blaming and pointing fingers doesn’t help. It merely perpetuates a stereotype that no longer represents the norm in school lunch or any other meal.

For the next 31 days, every day of December, School Meals That Rock will tell the #RealSchoolFood story with photos – from breakfast to supper, soup to nuts, farm to school, seed to salad bar and much more. Have concerns about food in your district? We’ll offer more specific ideas about what you can do to enhance the food served in any cafeteria.

Why? Because 20 million American children eat a free or reduced price school lunch every day. I believe that they deserve the best nutrition possible to fuel their education and their future. 

It's Only Nutrition When They Eat or Drink It

It’s Only Nutrition When They Eat or Drink It

#GiveThanks 4 #RealSchoolFood: Let’s stop bashing #SchoolLunch

Dear #ThanksMichelleObama, Katie Couric, DoSomething.org, Mrs. Q, Jamie Oliver and all #SchoolLunch haters across the USA:

It’s time for the bashing of school meals to stop … once and for all! Why? For starters … since the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) have had a complete upgrade. Fresh, house-made meals – increasingly local and sometimes organic – are becoming the norm from coast to coast. This gorgeous #RealSchoolFood lunch from Sanders Elementary, Jefferson County Public Schools, includes #farmtoschool BBQ Chicken and Butternut Squash.

2014 Farm to School Lunch in Jefferson County Public Schools (KY)

2014 Farm to School Lunch in Jefferson County Public Schools (KY)

I am deeply saddened that not every school lunch looks or tastes this good and I absolutely want every child in America to have access to meals like this. So, #ThanksMichelleObama, if your school lunch leaves something to be desired, get off Twitter and go talk to your School Wellness Committee/Council about how improvements can happen. If your meals are really gross and inedible, contact your state office of child nutrition (list is online here) and report them. If you want the report it to me anonymous, tweet it to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com and I will report them for you.

The National Farm to School Network is another really good reason to stop bashing school meals. With grants from USDA’s Farm to School Program, incredible changes in food systems are happening in communities small and large. Using 2011-12 data, the USDA Farm to School Census reported $385,771,134 in school meals dollars were directed to supporting local farmers in local communities. And we are talking the complete meal … beef, chicken, eggs, cheese, grains, fruits and veggies, plus milk that usually comes from local cows. Here’s what was on the menu when Alachua County Schools, Florida, kicked off their brand new Food Hub, established with a Farm to School grant and putting student to work growing food for school cafeterias. This looks like a menu from the latest foodie find in Chicago … but it is school lunch in North Florida!

2014 Menu for Food Hub Kickoff event, Alachua County Schools, Florida

2014 Menu for Food Hub Kickoff event, Alachua County Schools, Florida

The most difficult part of writing a blog post about school meals today is that there are so many outstanding examples … it’s difficult to choose just one or two or three. I can share hundreds gorgeous photos of #RealSchoolFood from every US state. You don’t have to take my word for it … you can see photographic evidence on School Meals That Rock Facebook page and scroll through thousands of examples on Pinterest. Seriously, go spend 10 minutes on School Meals That Rock Pinterest boards and you’ll see the deliciousness for yourself.

School Meals ROCK on Pinterest

School Meals ROCK on Pinterest

 

Does the current school food fight benefit hungry kids and hard-working nutrition professionals?

To all my friends and colleagues in the school nutrition world: AASA, AFHK, AHG, AND, CSPI, CIA, SNA, USDA, agriculture, industry and food advocates of all flavors … 

Those who know me professionally know that I have devoted my life to excellence in child nutrition programs. You know how strongly I believe that every child in American deserves to be well nourished and ready to succeed.

Those who know me personally will understand that my family situation (caring for my father in hospice at his home in California) prevents me from jumping into the current whirlwind of school lunch politics. I do not have the time or energy to sort through the conflicting claims and feeding frenzy of media messages to choose a particular side in this food fight. From what I have read, there are valid points on all sides. School meals are a complicated, nuanced issue, one that does not benefit from polarizing tweets and political rhetoric.

I am taking the “side” that I know best – one that often gets lost as the food fight heats up. I am supporting those who eat and cook school meals that rock. Millions of American children depend on school meals for the nourishment they need to succeed in academics, arts and athletics. Very often the quality of school breakfast, lunch, supper and snack far exceeds what they are fed at home or choose for themselves out in the world.

School Lunch, Bethel School District, Eugene, OR

School Lunch, Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

Thousands of dedicated, hardworking school nutrition professionals do their best every day to serve the healthiest meals possible –with reams of regulations, serious financial constraints, and complaints from every corner. I am not naïve; I know that nutrition nirvana in not found in every school. I also know that school nutrition programs do not serve “unlimited pizza and french fries every day,” kill kids with junk food, or want to roll back ten years of delicious improvements in school meals. Most are trying to develop farm to school contracts, plant school gardens and write grants for new kitchen equipment, while also helping kids to make healthier choices at school and home.

Farmer Delivers Vegetables to Moharimet School, Oyster River District, Durham, New Hampshire

Farmer Delivers Vegetables to Moharimet School, Oyster River District, Durham, New Hampshire

If I could wave a magic wand, I would ask everyone who cares about kids’ nutrition to take a deep breath, step back and think about how we can truly support school meals that rock. How can we find the middle ground without getting involved in a raucous election year debate that is more about being right than feeding hungry kids? How can we learn from districts that make smart nutrition work – recognizing vast differences among states and communities – to help those that are struggling? One nutrition solution does not fit all, but solutions in one district can help to inspire excellence in others.

We need many hands – from field to fork – to continue the positive changes in school nutrition programs. Legislators, farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, dietitians, chefs, superintendents, school nutrition professionals, parents and students need to talk with each other more –and yell about each other less. If everyone agrees that some flexibility in the meal standards probably makes sense, then let’s sit down and figure how to make that happen.

I doubt anyone inside the beltway is going to listen to my advice. Positions are now entrenched and politics are driving decisions more than science. For everyone else, if you want to get involved in school nutrition, here are my suggestions.

  • Go eat a meal in your local school to experience the daily reality of feeding hundreds of hungry kids in minutes rather than hours.
  • Spend some time in a school kitchen listening to what works under current guidelines and where flexibility would be helpful.
  • Join your local school wellness committee, anti-hunger coalition or local food group to create strategies that work.

What am I going to do? Continue my virtual tour inviting Katie Couric – and anyone else who cares – to do school lunch in cafeterias around the country. Every day I discover a new school serving amazing choices, a new program planting actual seeds of healthy food or a new hero teaching children to cook delicious nutrition.