True School Nutrition HEROES: Excellence Beyond the Regulations

There’s been lots of talk recently about how The School Day Just Got Healthier with USDA’s Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs that went into effect on July 1, 2012. Media stories abound with a generally positive tone – although many reporters wonder if students will actually eat the healthier options. I wrote about the new guidelines right here on August 24 in USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – and a whole new ballgame.

Fortunately for students, teachers, families, farmers and ranchers, some of the best news in school nutrition has nothing to do with the regulations! Incredibly positive things are happening in kitchens, cafeterias, and schoolyards from coast-to-coast – thanks to dedicated and visionary school nutrition heroes. Sometimes they make the headlines, but often as not, they labor quietly in their districts without attracting much fanfare or hoopla.
Here’s a taste of truly delicious news from four districts on the frontiers of school nutrition excellence. Literally spread from coast-to-coast, these districts are focused on serving the freshest, best tasting meals to students in the most positive, pleasant atmosphere possible. This is what we need — to get nutrient-rich food into kids; it is only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink it!

More school cafeteria makeovers

The typical noisy school cafeteria – with an “eat it and beat it” environment – is not conducive to trying new foods or enjoying a balanced meal. Cafeteria renovations, like those in Palm Beach County, Florida, often focus on creating a trendy café atmosphere. At McKay Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon – with support from anOregon Dairy Council Fuel Up To Play 60 grant, the school nutrition program went a step farther, making their cafeteria decorations match their nutrition marketing and education efforts, to help students “Eat a Rainbow.”

More school garden produce served in cafeterias

In some areas, school gardens are becoming almost the norm. New Jersey could be called the “School Garden State” with more than 242 schools growing vegetables and fruits for nutrition and/or education. Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, with support from urban agricultural groups, has taken school gardening to a whole new level. As recently announced on their Facebook page: “I am extremely proud to announce our 2012 Garden To Cafeteria schools! DPS Food and Nutrition Services will be purchasing produce from the 21 school gardens listed. Your students will then see that produce in their lunchroom salad bars! “ Now that is hyper-local!
More chefs in school kitchens

Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, Chefs Move to Schools, founded in May 2010, has meant a real upgrade in the culinary skills of school nutrition professionals. Chefs provide culinary boot camps for school cooks in several states and encourage “junior chefs” through many school assembly programs, like the one with Chef Virginia Willis in Marietta, Georgia. In Maplewood Richmond Heights School District (MO), Chef Robert Rusan has truly set a higher bar for school food. It’s hard to describe the comprehensiveness of the MRHS Healthy Foods program in a short paragraph. Just imagine a school nutrition program that makes its own fresh mozzarella cheese, builds an outdoor pizza oven, and harvests aqua-ponic lettuce.

More student involvement in school nutrition

While all the schools described so far involved students to some degree, Slater Jr. High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Foodservice Director Solange Morrisette, have kicked it up a notch with their Fruit and Vegetable Ambassador program. According to the USDA blog post, “the students came up with several fun ways to get their peers excited about eating fruits and vegetables. These ideas included the fruit and veggie taste testing, a fruit and veggie eating contest, a cafeteria remodel, and creating rap songs about healthy eating.” In this photo, guest farmer Shelly Pezza taught the future ambassadors about the benefits of eating local produce – which will soon show up on their salad bars.
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD (Registered Dietitian), is Past-Chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She helps agencies and organizations create healthier school environments across the country. You can follow her onFacebook and Twitter, and read in-depth analysis of school issues on her blog School Meals That Rock.

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