Are schools the healthiest places to eat in America?

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A recent study from researchers at Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University grabbed headlines across the country. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the school and senior researcher on the study, was repeatedly quoted as saying “Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” Complete results are available in the article Trends in Food Sources and Diet Quality Among US Children and Adults, 2003-2018 from JAMA Open Network.

When RDN colleague, Cara Rosenbloom asked me to comment on the article, I jumped at the chance. This study (and the resulting media attention) is one more important way to share just how essential school meals are for the health of our country. You can read Cara’s excellent summary on verywellfit at Analysis of American Diet Finds School Meals Most Nutritious, including several quotes from me. It is also the purpose of 20+ blog posts where I have interviewed school nutrition leaders about their experiences during COVID-19.

Article by Cara Rosenbloom, RD

Here are my complete answers to the questions that she asked me.

Cara: In the research, it says that “the largest improvement in diet quality was in schools, with the percentage with poor diet quality decreasing from 55.6% to 24.4%, mostly after 2010, and with equitable improvements across population subgroups.” Can you comment on what changed after 2010 to account for this improvement?

Dayle: The major changes after 2010 relate to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. The USDA website summarizes it well: Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children , the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allowed USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. Over the decade since the HHFK was enacted, several other changes have led to improvements in school meals. Briefly these include:

  • Increased funding and dramatic expansion of Farm to School programs (including school gardens and actual school farms) across the US. For details and data, visit the USDA Farm to School website.
Burlington (Vermont) School Food Project serves as many local foods as possible
  • Increased focus on culinary training for school nutrition professionals and school chefs becoming more and more common. These efforts are supported by USDA Team Nutrition training grants and by 3rd party groups, often with industry support. An excellent example is the Healthy Kids Collaborative convened by the Culinary Institute of America.

Cara: Can you describe what children may be given as a typical school lunch? Which particular foods/nutrients may account for it being “healthy?” And how did that change from pre-2010?

Dayle: A typical school lunch includes whole grains, lean proteins and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes and sodium levels are specified by age group. More details can be found in the 2018 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and School Nutrition Association:Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools and the accompanying Practice Paper. 

Madison County, Kentucky, meals at school and curbside grab-n-go

Within the USDA guidelines and regulations, there is lots of delicious flexibility for schools to offer meals that appeal to students, introducing them to new flavors while respecting cultural traditions and food preferences. Since pictures are worth thousands of words, I invite you to scroll through the photos on TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock, a Facebook group of 16,800 members. Unfortunately the perception of school meals today still relies on some very old tropes of monochrome processed entrees with canned fruits and veggies. Today even the canned products have been reformulated. 

Cara:

Cars: How has COVID-19 affected school lunches? Are they still being distributed? Are they still nutritious?

Dayle: COVID-19 has affected school meals just like it has affected every aspect of our lives! The really good news is that school nutrition programs have been serving meals for children (and sometimes families too) often with 24 hours of school closures last March 2020. 

School nutrition professionals have been true heroes during the pandemic – making certain that children were fed even if it meant putting themselves at risk. The meals, meal kits and meal boxes that they have served – through heat, cold, snow and rain – have been an actual lifeline to families everywhere in the USA. 

Many thanks to the school nutrition staff in Carson City, Nevada

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Caitlin and her community!

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Caitlin Lazarski, MS, RD, SNS, has been the Nutrition Director at Newburgh Enlarged City School District (70 miles north of New York City) for 7 years. The district has approximately 12,000 students, serving 7,500 breakfasts and 8,000 lunches under CEP prior to COVID. Providing meals for hybrid learners in classrooms and curbside delivery for all virtual students, the department served 250,000 meals in February 2021.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Like many of her colleagues, Caitlin Lazarski says that being able to change quickly is an ongoing challenge. While the initial months of the pandemic necessitated many changes in service models, the department is now seeing weekly shifts in participation as students return to classes – depending on weather and now daylight savings time. She is very thankful for a distributor that understands her need for flexibility, where an open line of communication is literally a lifeline!

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Lazarski is very proud of – and grateful for – newly found connections with her community. She has always emphasized the department’s connections with students (“we are the only school staff members who see every student, every day‘). During COVID school nutrition has been able to touch more families and more parts of the community. Last spring they tried their regular summer feeding distribution which did not work. Participation dropped dramatically, leading to the layoff of all foodservice staff. As a “hometown girl” (both Caitlin and her husband work and grew up in the district), she started to do more outreach, explaining the benefits of emergency meals for everyone. This did work and she has seen a ground swell of support along with increasing participation.

School Breakfast, specifically breakfast after the bell, has been a focus in Newburgh for several years (pre-pandemic breakfast and lunch participation was almost equal). Caitlin was not about to give up on breakfast excellence even with multiple service models. Breakfast in Classroom continued for in-school learners and Goldback meal kits (building on a district-wide brand) included fresh strawberries and yogurt for DIY smoothies. Clearly Newburgh School Meals knows how to Score Big with School Breakfast under any circumstances!

Goldback 10-Day Break Menu includes Heat&Eat and Kit Items

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While she acknowledges that it is not really an innovation, Caitlin hopes that her staff will be able to hold onto a new-found sense of teamwork. One ‘silver lining’ of COVID is that it changed how the staff feels about departmental leadership – they realized that Caitlin was with them, that she was fighting for them, protecting them and that she really cared about them. Working together in all sorts of challenging new situations, especially variable curbside conditions, also reinforced that everyone has each other’s backs.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Laura-Zelda and her RDN Team!

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Laura-Zelda S. Villarreal, MBA, RDN, LD, SNS, has been Director of Food & Nutrition Services for Brownsville ISD for 20 months – 12 months of that during the COVID-19 pandemic! Brownsville is city of 181,000 located on the Texas-Mexico border. The district serves 40,000+ students under CEP. Pre-pandemic they served approximately 30,000 breakfasts and 35,000 lunches; currently their ADP is about 10,000.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Villarreal, the biggest challenge was implementing COVID safety procedures when even the terminology was foreign. What does PPE stand for? Where do I purchase it? How can I get enough for my staff? With a million calls, strong support from the local Educational Service Center (ESC) and navigating a very steep learning curve, she was able to get the equipment and supplies necessary to keep her staff safe on the frontlines so they could serve thousands of meals daily. The accelerated learning continued with every new ‘pivot’ necessitated by ever-changing guidelines and waivers. Laura-Zelda described it as learning to turn a semitruck on a dime!

Brownsville ISD Food and Nutrition Services is full of sweet hearts!

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

Villarreal is proud of keeping the department’s approximately 487 staff members employed and safe during COVID. Her leadership team had to completely rethink their meal service platforms and reach their customers wherever they needed meals. In addition to food, they have fun giveaways and engage families by providing online nutrition education and food demos. All this has required new partnerships, especially with the districts’ transportation department and their routes managed by GPS. It was made possible by over $200,000 in grants from GENYOUTH and Dairy Max, Action for Healthy Kids, Texas Department of Agriculture, and No Kid Hungry. Laura-Zelda suggested a new motto for her department: We can do THIS and THIS and THIS and THIS too!

Home delivery boxes being loaded onto school bus

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

While several innovations are sustainable into the future, the Home Delivery Meal Program (HMDP) is most important to Villarreal. Many BISD families experience food insecurity because of insufficient food and limited resources to purchase more. Adapting the BISD FNS operation during COVID-19 was critical to reaching those in need. Their mantra is (and always has been): If the students cannot come to the food, we are going to do all we can to take the food to them. HMDP uses an efficient system operated by GPS software and makes online enrollment easy (watch video for details). Meal kits (5 breakfasts and 7 suppers) are delivered weekly to 500 stops soon to be 1,800 stops after Spring Break. Participating HMDP households receive a yard sign indicating the students are recipients of meal delivery and a placard allowing parents/guardians to pick-up a daily hot lunch at any curbside school. Laura-Zelda is proud to say the HMDP reinforces their commitment to the school community and plans to continue it during summer feeding and whenever it is needed. “Parents have expressed immense gratitude, and to see their faces, it makes it all worth it.”

District staff delivers HMDP signs

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Jeanne!

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Jeanne Reilly has been the Director of School Nutrition in RSU #14, Windham-Raymond, Maine, for 12 years. Her rural district serves 3300 students. Prior to March 2020, the district’s free/reduced percentage was 34 percent.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year? Jeanne’s personal and professional challenges have been intertwined. On a personal level her challenge has been exhaustion, making it hard to find a positive attitude every morning. Professionally she needed to keep her staff positive, engaged and connected to each other. She needed to keep them focused on the “Maine” goal – their core mission to feed the district’s students – while maintaining staff levels. Motivation was critical but also challenging with constant changes in learning plans, USDA waivers and personal safety recommendations. If you are reading this, you probably know these struggles all too well.

Bulk meals during COVID-19

What achievement are you the proudest of during COVID-19? Through a seemingly endless round of pivots, Windham Raymond School Nutrition Program staff have stayed flexible, open-minded and innovative. They currently serve meals in four ways (cafeteria, other areas of schools, curbside and delivery) and have maintained 75 percent of pre-pandemic participation with only 40-50 percent of students in school at any point. Jeanne is rightly proud of her team’s achievements which she attributes in large part of years’ of trainings (customer service, culinary, HHFKA regulations, etc.) and team building. Her leadership goal has been to enable her team to grasp an idea quickly – and to run with it.

RSU Superintendent observes Mobile Meals (top) and Chef provides contact free delivery

Support from the district and the communities served by RSU #14 has been vital to maintaining participation and positive perception of the program. Jeanne is proud that the program was able to build their already-strong communication channels to let their customers know that (1) we are here to provide nutritious, safe food for your families and (2) we will keep you updated on inevitable changes asap. Their strong social media presence and regular Eblasts helped to market emergency meals and to provide ongoing education about nutrition, food safety and other critical issues.

What innovation(s) have you made that you will continue using in the future? “In order to meet social distancing guidelines, we have been serving meals to students throughout our buildings – classrooms, hallways and access points. This has been very successful and we plan to maintain it in the future.” Jeanne notes that they have been able to demonstrate to teachers and administration that feeding students is essential and that serving in a variety of locations can be efficient, effective and safe.

Grab & Go Breakfast Kiosks (L) and Concession Stand becomes serving station (R)