Giving Thanks Every School Day

When I started the TIPS for Schools Meals That Rock Facebook group in early 2018, I did not know what to expect. The response has been wonderful with 2,065+ members sharing recipes, resources and their successes. A recent post by Amanda Pack Warren from Staunton City Eats, SCS School Nutrition Programs, Staunton, Virginia, made me step back and reflect on the celebration of School Nutrition Employee Week. Warren pointed out that School Nutrition Professionals deserve much more than gifts, thank you cards and social media posts for the incredible job they do – they deserve professional respect and deep appreciation every day.

HERO Pack Warren 1

There’s a T-shirt (popular among school nutrition professionals of course) that says “I feed hundreds of hungry children every day with a smile on my face. What do you do?” This photo from Staunton City Eats embodies that slogan. With many thanks to Amanda Warren, I want to share my gratitude to every school nutrition professional by expanding on two points from her post: Every day these hard-working professionals deserve to receive sincere and specific thanks for a job well-done and to be seen as partners in education.

Woodland Staff

Sincere Thanks: The story behind this photo made me cry when I read the post from Kalin Bryan, Bartow County School Nutrition, Cartersville, Georgia: “A very special thing happened today at Woodland Middle School. Our central office team was delivering special aprons for School Nutrition Employee Week at WMS; she handed out the aprons and invited the staff into the cafeteria for a photo while the students were still eating. As the school nutrition staff walked out into the cafeteria, the entire lunchroom full of students started clapping and applauding them. No one asked the students to do this. They did it because they know how hard the ladies work to provide delicious, fresh food to them every school day.” I have eaten in this cafeteria and I know how hard these professionals work to plan, prepare and serve tasty, fresh meals with a smile.

Dallas Solar Preparatory

Specific thanks: While celebrating all the Dallas ISD Food Super Cooks Heroes during #FreshAttitudeWeek (coinciding with #SchoolNutritionEmployeeWeek), the department, directed by Michael Rosenberg, chose to recognize one school team with a specific award for serving with loving smiles: Our amazing Solar Preparatory School for Girls at James B. Bonham Cafeteria Crew was honored today by Dallas ISD Food and Child Nutrition Services with the Heart of Child Nutrition Award! We are extremely grateful for this team who serves each meal with love and a smile! #SolarStaffRocks.”

Stem Sensational Salad

Partners in STEM Education: School Nutrition programs and staff are the perfect partners for STEM (Science, Technology, Electronics and Math) Education using food to teach and reinforce classroom lessons. In Carrollton City Schools, Georgia, (Director Linette Dodson), Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools has developed delicious partnerships using school gardens, Food Corps service members and nutrition professionals: “When our CES Trojans grow enough mixed greens in school gardens to provide our kitchen with greens for 800+ STEMsational school lunch salads, it brings new meaning to Georgia Grown!” Now that’s a STEMsational example of the many ways Georgia School Nutrition Programs are creating strong educational partners with their  #ShakeItUPGA initiative!

RockledgeFruitapolooza

Partners in MATH/STEM Education: It’s clear from all the banners in this photo and from their Twitter feed (@RKES_PWCS) that the Rockledge Elementary Eagles, Prince William County Schools, VA, are focused on education excellence and fun educational activities, especially when it comes to STEM. AND they involve their school nutrition professionals in events like the Annual 3rd Grade Fruitapalooza to learn about fractions. Talk about #deliciousmath! Follow Prince William County Schools, School Food & Nutrition Services at @PWCSNutrition on Twitter to learn all about their delicious program.

I am grateful every day to every school nutrition professional across the USA. I am grateful to dishwashers, food artists, menu planners, directors and most of all those who serve hudreds of hungry children with smiles on their faces. You feed our future. 2015-10-27 I Feed Hundreds Shirt

 

 

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.

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (6 of 6)

This is our sixth post about the key elements of taking school food photos that ROCK. We’ve covered Background, Quality, People, Lighting and Contrast. Our goal has been – one step at a time – to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take some great PHOTOS of your employees, your customers and your food.

STEP #6. FOCUS. The final element is, in fact, the most important. You can have a beautiful background, high quality food, adorable children, proper lighting and gorgeous contrasting colors – but if your photo is not in focus, viewers will not get your message. The most important question is: Do you know how to FOCUS your Smartphone (or camera)? If you don’t, learn right now. To find instructions, search the model of your phone or camera and “how to focus” online. If you have an iPhone, the answer is simple: Tap the screen on the area that you want to be in focus. The phone will focus and adjust to the lighting at the same time.

THE GREAT: This photo from Sitka, Alaska, has it all. The blue tray allows the lunch to shine, even though it is not truly colorful. The meal is simple, but obviously good quality, especially when you learn the tacos are made with local fish. The student customer is adorable and clearly enjoying her lunch. There’s good contrast on the tray, nice lighting and the focus is excellent. Thanks to Sitka Conservation Society for sharing the tasty photo and their new Guide to Serving Local Fish in Schools.

Boat-to-school - AKA local fish - is popular in Sitka, Alaska

Boat-to-school – AKA local fish – is popular in Sitka, Alaska

THE MARGINAL: This photo is clearly not in focus. It does however show the rapid movement of lots of middle schoolers through a hallway and their use of a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart. If you decide to use a photo like this, it would be good to include another photo with better focus on the cart.

Lots of students moving past a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart

Lots of students moving past a Grab-n-Go Breakfast Cart

THE REAL NO-NOS: This is obviously a great lunch line with some great food options and a very proud employee. It just makes us wish that it was in focus.

A lovely line and happy employee are completely lost in the lack of focus

A lovely line and happy employee are completely lost in the lack of focus

HOT TIP: There are lots of other ways, including apps, to improve the performance of your photos on your phone. This article has 10 Tips For Taking Better Photos With Your Smartphone – and there are many more like it online. The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice – and always focus your phone or camera! 

 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (5 of 6)

Have you ever thought about what really makes a food appealing in person or in a photo? It often has a lot to do with contrast. The contrasting colors of food on a tray (or plate) – and the contrast with a background color – can make a break or make the eye appeal of any meal. Setting up school food photos for maximum contrast – on color, shape and size – can make your customers eager to try your food or turn them off to your program before they even walk through the line. Today’s focus is on checking the CONTRAST of your photo before you click. We’re working hard to get you ready for great photos for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #5: CONTRAST. This is actually very easy once you get in the habit. Every time you set up a school food photo, look for contrast. Put complementary colors next to each other and look for different shapes and sizes of food on a tray or plate.

THE GREAT: This gorgeous line of trays from Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools Schools, Georgia, almost looks like a quilt of deliciousness. Notice the bright colors of green and orange  produce, along with the rich gold and brown tones of the roll, chicken and pasta. Notice that the alternating placement of the trays provides even more visual contrast. This Chefs Move to Schools lunch featured a local chef and local Georgia-grown vegetables – and probably tasted as good as it looks.

Chefs Move to School Lunch, Savannah-Chatham County Schools, Georgia

Chefs Move to School Lunch, Savannah-Chatham County Schools, Georgia

THE MARGINAL: This is actually an incredible meal – with house-made noodles for the casserole and some local produce. However, the photo does not do justice to the meal – because there is not enough contrast among the foods and with the tray (it could POP on a blue or read tray). It also suffers from florescent lighting – and from being slightly out of focus.

Wonderful meal, not enough contrast

Wonderful meal, not enough contrast

THE REAL NO-NOS: This is also a wonderful local meal – everything on the tray came from within the state where it was served. It was also incredibly popular with students in a Southern elementary school. Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize grits in the white bowl and the collards do not provide enough contrast. Viewers also cannot tell what is the container next to the sweet potato – and there is too much white and beige overall.

Poor contrast, poor lighting, too many lids and problems with focus

Poor contrast, poor lighting, too many bowls and too much white-beige

HOT TIP: Steer away from white on white – and add color whenever you can. Look for ways to contrast color, shape and size. (And, of course, flavors and textures for the lucky customers who actually get to eat the food!) The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice. 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (4 of 6)

In today’s electronic world, great school food photos are not an option – they are essential. We are increasingly a visual society and your customers want to see your meals, not just read a few words on a monthly menu. Lucky for you, great photos are just a click away on your SmartPhone – IF you focus on SIX ELEMENTS every time you take a school food photo. We’re covering one element each day to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #4: LIGHTING. One of the essential elements of a great food photo is good lighting, which can be difficult under the conditions in many school cafeterias and kitchens. Florescent lighting is harsh and tends to ‘wash out’ the natural colors of food. Professional food photographers agree – natural lightening is best for food, so the answer is simple: Take food to a window or skylight to get the lighting it deserves. Here are examples of GREAT, MARGINAL and REAL NO-NOS of lighting for trays shots.

THE GREAT: Even with a less than ideal tray color, this Starksboro, Vermont, lunch shows its true colors when taken under a cafeteria skylight. The house-made broccoli cheddar soup, Tuscan kale salad and hummus were outstanding – and the carrots were still locally-sourced from a farmer in March! Many thanks to Kathy Alexander, Laura Collaro, Mollie Silver and Doreen Bortz from ANESU Food Service Cooperative for a delicious dining experience in the their cafetorium.

Lovely, home-style lunch in Starksboro, Vermont.

Lovely, home-style lunch in Starksboro, Vermont.

THE MARGINAL: This is not a terrible photo and you certainly get the idea that this is nice salad bar with a variety of offerings. But with no adjustment for the florescent lighting, the colors are not very appetizing. The problems are compounded because the photo is also slightly out of focus. (Remember, salad bars are often on wheels so you can roll them over to a window for photographing.)

Washed out salad bar

Washed out colors in a beautiful salad bar

THE REAL NO-NOS: There are multiple problems with this photo but the lack of proper lighting makes everything worse. Notice too that the plastic wrap and other packaging reflects what light there is.

Not enough light, no natural light and plastic wrap make these items unappealing.

Not enough light, no natural light and plastic wrap make these items unappealing.

HOT TIP: If the lighting is not good where you want to take a school food photo, move the food toward natural light whenever possible. The best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice. 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (3 of 6)

Let’s be honest, great food photos of your school nutrition program are not an option – they are a necessity. With all the negative publicity about school meals, great photos are worth at least 1,000 words – and maybe 10,000+ views. Fortunately, fabulous photos are just a click away on your SmartPhone – IF you focus on SIX ELEMENTS every time you take a school food photo. We’re covering an element-a-day to get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #3: PEOPLE. Happy kids + appealing school food + smiling school nutrition professionals = WIN, WIN, WIN. Including people in your school food photos is a wonderful addition IF you always observes these ABCs: (A) You have permission to share the photo of the individual; (B) All food safety practices are observed; and (C) The meal and service are in compliance with USDA regulations.

THE GREAT: Candid shots of students do not have to be perfectly composed to be perfectly wonderful. This is terrific photo from Bethel School Nutrition Program in Eugene, Oregon – even though it is a little out of focus. There’s a gorgeous variety of food on the tray and the smile shows how difficult it can be for children to chew through all that food in a short school lunch period.

Back-to-School in Bethel, Oregon.

Back-to-School in Bethel, Oregon.

THE MARGINAL: We love this photo too – and the students are wearing gloves while they help to peel carrots from a nearby farm for processing in the school kitchen. We would not use it, because their hair is not pulled back in all cases and, more importantly, they are working outside. Perceived problems with food safety trump local food and happy students every day.

Outdoor location makes this marginal as a school nutrition photo.

Outdoor location makes this marginal as a school nutrition photo.

THE REAL NO-NOS: We really wanted to this photo to work because it showed local firefighters having breakfast with students during National School Breakfast Week – but we could not use it. Never, never post photos that are too dark and out of focus (stay tuned because we cover these topics next!)

Dark, out of focus photos just don't work.

Out of focus with poor lighting photos just don’t work.

HOT TIP: There is no need to show children’s faces in a photo. If you are worried about permission, just show their hands or the backs of their heads. And, ALWAYS remember, the best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice. 

Rockin’ School Meal Photos: Post It, Pin It, Tweet It, Eat It (2 of 6)

In the wide world of social media, great photos of school meals are not an option – they are necessary for maintaining satisfied customers. Eye-catching photos are just a click away on your SmartPhone – IF you focus on SIX ELEMENTS every time you take a school food photo. To get you ready for School Nutrition Employee Week, May 5th thru 9th, we’re focusing on one element each day. Be a HERO, take a great PHOTO.

STEP #2: QUALITY. Honestly, if you are not proud of the food quality in your program, do not take a photo of it. Always start with high quality products that are as fresh as possible. Like the mantra for food safety, when taking school food photos, make sure that hot food is hot and cold food is cold.

THE GREAT: The quality of this lasagna lunch from Windham-Raymond, Maine (RSU#14) is apparent before you learn the back story. The noodles and tomato sauce are made in the school kitchen with local grass-fed beef – and the basil, greens, apple and milk are all local (some from the school garden). Director Jeanne Reilly works with a part-time district chef and Chefs Move to Schools to plan, grow, prepare and serve extraordinary meals – and it shows!

Housemade Lasagna (including the noodles) with local greens, apple and milk

Housemade Lasagna (including the noodles) with local greens, apple and milk

THE MARGINAL: This grab-n-go chicken salad is a great concept and it has some wonderful fresh ingredients. Sadly, the wrinkled tomatoes detract from the freshness, as does the bruise near the apple stem. (This photo also has problems with lighting, which we will discuss soon!)

Wrinkled tomatoes ruin the entire presentation.

Wrinkled tomatoes ruin the overall quality of the presentation.

THE REAL NO-NOS: This might be a delicious meal and very popular in some schools. Unfortunately, the lack of fresh produce (even the apple looks tired) and the limited colors make it unappealing to the eye. White styrofoam trays themselves make it hard to take good photos and they are an environmental ‘hot button’ in some communities.

Lack of fresh produce and limited colors make quality questionable.

Lack of fresh produce and limited colors make quality questionable.

HOT TIP: Want to see the highest quality school meals and photos in action? Visit the School Meals That Rock PINTEREST page, where from Windham-Raymond, Maine (RSU#14), and Provo, Utah, Schools, both have boards.

And, remember best way to take better school food photos is practice, practice, practice.