School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Brian, on a mission at St. Labre Mission!


Brian S. Jones has been the Food Service Director at St. Labre Indian School (a private Catholic School) in Montana for five years. The 100% CEP district enrolls 600 students from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations in three buildings, each with its own kitchen. Pre-COVID the program was preparing breakfast and lunch meals for all students. Brian and his 26 staff members have a well-deserved reputation for excellence: St. Labre meals are made from scratch, everything from the baking of all breads and rolls to cutting and slicing fruits and vegetables for salad bars and lines. Brian also been known as the “bison man” in SNA circles because the school raises, processes and serves their own bison meat.

When schools closed in March and students were scattered throughout a sparsely inhabited area without reliable transportation, Brian knew he had to do something different to keep feeding his customers. He had always been thinking about packaging systems in the back of his mind and knew this was the time to purchase them. The administration agreed to buy three packaging machines, one for each kitchen. Later a donor read about their success with packaged meals and donated funds for a fourth machine to increase capacity. The program made, packaged and delivered over 900 meals per day – the same high quality, house-made meals that they served before the pandemic, like salads and parfaits. The schools are gradually returning to in-person learning with meals in the classroom and some older students living full-time in the dormitory.  

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

To achieve Brian’s vision of a quality end-product, the entire staff had to be re-trained. Basically school kitchens with tray lines had to be turned into production kitchens with assembly lines. Cooks needed training on adapted recipes and the packaging crew needed to learn the ins-and-outs of packaging machines. Due to supply chain and storage issues (challenges in the best of times), the district also had to go to shelf stable milk.

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

Brian doesn’t hesitate for a moment in giving credit where credit is due: He is incredibly proud of his staff. He recognizes that much of their work satisfaction comes from daily interactions with students around nourishing food. They were able to take that energy and passion for mostly personal relationships and turn it into the more routine jobs of packing and delivery food. Because transportation routes had be reconfigured and buses could not go unto certain areas, food services employees also became food van drivers – a sometimes treacherous situation due to weather and the potential for COVID exposure.

Employees have embraced production meals

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

Sadly the reservations served by St. Labre School have been hard hit by the pandemic with high rates of infection and deaths. It is the tradition of the tribes to serve large funeral feasts for extended families and friends, often at events for up to 150 people. The multiple packaging machines have been getting lots of use for catering these events (at cost) – sometimes up to six in one week.

Production Meals in St. Labre Indian School

Eat. Play. Learn. R is for RECESS

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

R is for RECESS (Before Lunch) 

Physical activity at RECESS is good for kids brains (and their bodies) for the same reasons as walking/biking to school and PE classes are. According to the 2012  American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on The Crucial Role of Recess in School:

“… safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

RECESS before lunch has been shown to have some additional very important benefits. When children are active before coming to the cafeteria, they eat better and behave better. Studies show that they actually eat more entrée, vegetables and fruits – and drink more milk. When kids rush through lunch so they can run out to play, lots of food goes into the garbage can and students are short-changed on afternoon fuel. Breakfast helps children learn in the morning, but lunch is just as necessary for afternoon classes.

I’m proud to say that Montana Team Nutrition has been real leader in RECESS Before Lunch, publishing both A Guide to Success and research: Scheduling Recess Before Lunch: Exploring the Benefits and Challenges in Montana Schools.

Montana Team Nutrition Recess Before Lunch (RBL) Guide

Montana Team Nutrition Recess Before Lunch (RBL) Guide

Eat. Play. Learn. L is for LUNCH

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

L is for LUNCH

We hear lots of talk about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, especially for children in school. And, when we talk about childhood hunger, most of the conversation is again about insuring that food insecure children have access to school breakfast. But, what about school lunch? Is lunch any less important than breakfast at school?

School lunch is just as important for focus, concentration and learning as breakfast – just in the afternoon instead of the morning. More children have access to school lunch than school breakfast, but sadly many children may not have enough time or the right atmosphere to actually eat and enjoy the lunch they are served. Experts agree that students need at least 15 to 20 minutes of seat time for lunch. Unfortunately many children have 10 minutes or less to sit and eat at lunchtime – and often the cafeteria is loud or managed more like a prison with whistles, lights out and silence for bad behavior.

The good news is that some schools are creating Comfortable Cafeterias, which encourage students to socialize and enjoy their lunch – without being pressured to eat or to hurry. I have worked with Montana Team Nutrition on resources for Pleasant and Positive Mealtimes. The goal is make cafeterias inviting places for children to eat – so that the food goes into them rather than into trash cans. It is only nutrition when they eat or drink it!

Just look at the wonderful tray that this student in Bethel, Oregon, chose on the lunch line and consider for a moment how long it will take her to eat it – even without distractions from other students and cafeteria aides! With a a beautiful lunch like this, children need time and encouragement to eat, so they can pay attention and learn in the afternoon.

First Grade Student in Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

First Grade Student in Bethel School District, Eugene, Oregon

Some Very Real Reasons Why Kids May Be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 1 of 3

I’ve watched the videos from the hungry teen athletes in Kansas and Jon Stewart’s amusing Starved By the Bell segment. I’ve read about the boycotts and heard dedicated school nutrition professionals talk seriously about getting their high schools out of the National School Lunch Program.

I’m very sorry that meals for kids at school are once again fodder for YouTube videos and late night TV. I’m even sorrier that school nutrition has become a political football like so many other issues. I am sorriest for the thousands of school nutrition heroes who have been trying to make the 2012 USDA Nutrition Standards work and the millions of low-income children who reply on schools cafeterias to provide their best meals of the day.

There are some very real reasons why students, especially teens, may be hungry during the school day. If everyone focused on finding real solutions, we could work together to benefit all students – improving their nutrition, health and academic performance. Here are two of the very real reasons that kids may be hungry at school – stay tuned for more reasons in parts 2 and 3.

Greek Pizza with hummus on whole grain crust, Johnston, Rhode Island, High School

Reason #1: Kids, especially teens, are hungry because they don’t eat breakfast.

SOLUTION: Breakfast every day for every student

According to the 2011 Kellogg’ Breakfast in America Survey, breakfast eating dips as kids grow older; 77 percent of young children eat breakfast every day, but this falls to 50 percent in the middle-school years and 36 percent among high school students. If you don’t eat breakfast, the new calorie ranges may not be enough to be both a breakfast and a lunch. And, more importantly, you will have found it hard (if not impossible) to concentrate and learn in your morning classes.

Schools need breakfast programs that are convenient for kids and practical for school food service. There are lots of successful models: Grab-and-Go breakfast options, like new kiosks planned for Medford (MA) schools, breakfast in the classroom being successfully implemented in districts coast to coast, and cafeteria breakfast bars with made-to-order breakfast burritos, as seen in my hometown of Billings, Montana.

Made-to-Order, Breakfast Burrito Bar, Senior High School, Billings, Montana

Reason #2: Most school schedule recess after lunch, so kids rush to get outside.

SOLUTION: Recess Before lunch

When kids are eager for recess, they often dump hunger-satisfying foods into the trash. It’s only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink, so we should maximize scheduling to get the food into the kids. Honestly, it’s not rocket science that children would be hungrier and thirstier when they have the chance to play first – and that exactly what schools report according to Starving for Recess, a 2011 District Administration article.

Scheduling Recess Before Lunch (RBL) isn’t rocket-science either and there are plenty of resources from Montana Team Nutrition to help schools with the process. RBL can even save money since many schools report significant decreases in garbage removal costs when students are active first, eating more food and drinking more milk afterward.

Recess Before Lunch Guide, Montana Team Nutrition (2008)

School Breakfast: From the Hungry Side of the Tray

I was profoundly affected by my school breakfast visit Thursday morning – to Senior High School in Billings, Montana (1,900+ students, 31% free-reduced). I tried to capture it throughout the day in School Meals That Rock Facebook photos postings and some School Meals Rock tweets, but what I saw and felt was difficult to express 140 characters at a time.

Much of my work is fairly abstract – presentations about marketing healthy school meals, webinars about implementing new meal patterns, and interviews about nutrients that kids are missing. This visit to a large high school cafeteria for breakfast was much more important and straightforward – it was simply about feeding hungry teenagers.

The food was great. While it exceeded current USDA guidelines, the menu might have disappointed the vociferous school meal critics who sometimes seem to seek nutrition perfection. Some of the fruit was canned (peaches and pineapple in juice); there were corn dogs (whole grain, low-fat, turkey, but still corn dogs); and there were ready-to-eat cereals rather than plain oatmeal.

There was also fresh fruit (bananas, apples, and oranges), yogurt parfaits, and an amazing made-to-order burrito bar with locally sourced tortillas and sausage crumbles, plus eggs, spinach, jalapenos, onions, and salsa. While not organic-free-range nutrition perfection, it was wholesome, healthy, and prepared by “lunch ladies” who greeted kids by name with a smile and “welcome to our café” attitude.

In the bright sunny Senior High cafeteria, I was especially struck by three things:

  • First, the atmosphere was like the pleasant bustle of a coffee shop with lots of conversation, but no loud voices or inappropriate interactions. The school police officer came in – to talk with kids and have breakfast himself – rather than to “patrol” or enforce proper behavior. He said, “It’s like this every morning.”
  • There were all kinds of kids – with cowboy hats, updo hairstyles, multiple piercings, and athletic gear – all there to do one thing: eat breakfast. Best of all, there were many girls with smart plates filled with protein, fruit, and milk. With all the news about disordered eating, it is heartening to see young women enjoying breakfast.
  • When I asked several teens what they liked best about school breakfast, they looked a little surprised, because it was obvious to them. “I eat here almost everyday because it’s free and it’s good.” “Some kids don’t have money to eat and when I eat here, I don’t have to listen to my stomach growl all morning.”

On USDA’s “What’s on Your Plate” Day, these students were not looking for culinary perfection, steel cut oats, or exotic tropical fruit. They needed a balanced breakfast in a safe and welcoming place – they got that and much more. Next time you are tempted to pick apart a school menu or criticize the cafeteria offerings, go to your local high school and take a look at things from a hungry teen’s point-of-view.

Find out what changes the program has already made and what they would like to do if they had more support. Compare what the kids can enjoy in a school breakfast to those eating chips, pop, and candy from the corner store. Offer ideas to leverage USDA’s $1.94 reimbursement (food + labor) for even more nutritious options that teens will eat.

Better yet, get engaged with the school and the kids. Explore what you could do to help promote smart choices for successful athletes or start a school food pantry for the students in need. There is a brand-new food pantry at Senior High – and everyone is surprised by how many students are using it.

It’s Only Nutrition WHEN You Eat It: What is STILL missing from the School Nutrition Standards?

I applaud the recently issued USDA Nutrition Standards and am a huge fan of nudging students toward putting healthier options on their trays (aka behavioral economics). However, there is an incredibly important issue missing from most current conversations about food at school.

The REAL question is: How do we get all these wonderfully nutritious school breakfast and lunch meals into kids? My manta for 2012 is that is it only nutrition when a child eats or drinks it. If school food goes into a trashcan, it is garbage, not nutrition.

Let’s be honest: Most school cafeterias are not conducive to a pleasant dining experience for anyone (which is why few adults want to eat in them). Many barely give kids enough time to eat and drink what’s on their tray now (which will be more of a problem when more fruits and veggies are served under the new meal patterns). I have been in a few school lunchrooms with the feel of a prison – adults patrolling the aisles, prohibitions on talking to your friends, and stoplights when things get “out of hand.”

If, like First Lady Michelle Obama, we want to the new meal patterns to succeed in growing healthier children, we have to create more positive and pleasant mealtimes in schools. If we truly believe that school nutrition programs are critical for a healthier generation, we have to give more time and attention to HOW we feed children in school as well as to WHAT we feed them.

Three tried-and-true tips for more comfortable cafeterias from Montana Team Nutrition

1.     Schedule Recess Before Lunch

Research shows that the best sequence for children is playing, eating, then learning. When kids have Recess Before Lunch (RBL), it improves their nutrition, their behavior in the cafeteria, and their focus when they return to the classroom. From the nutrition side, they eat more entrées and vegetables – and drink more milk. Montana Team Nutrition offers a complete Recess Before Lunch: Guide to Success – a no-cost way to help close children’s nutrient gaps!

2.     Establish Reasonable Eat-tiquette Expectations

Like anything else in school, children can learn to behave well in the cafeteria. They just need to be taught appropriate eat-tiqutte – and then to have positive behavior consistently reinforced by everyone from the principal to lunchroom aides. In Welcome to Our Comfortable Cafeteria, real school staff from a real school in Gallatin Gateway, Montana, show how well this works with real kids. Bottom line: Adults need to have clear expectations, to teach them to everyone, and to reinforce them constantly.

 3.     Provide enough time and enough adult role models.

What was one of the most important things that the First Lady did when announcing the new USDA meal pattersn? She sat down at a table and enjoyed turkey tacos while talking with the students at Parklawn Elementary School. Children need enough time to eat – at least 15 to 20 minutes of seat time after getting their trays – and they will eat better when adults sit and enjoy lunch with them. The free Montana Team Nutrition Welcome to Our Comfortable Cafeteria webinar on February 21, 2012, will outline ways to create a lunchroom where administrators, teachers, aides, parents, and grandparents want to eat with kids.

We have to take a new approach to HOW meals are served in school cafeterias. The “herd-em-in/herd-em-out” mentality is not the path toward healthful eating habits. If our goal is competent eaters who make smart choices for lifetime health, we have to do better. Fortunately, for everyone in schools, Montana Team Nutrition resources provide some wonderful new road maps.