Delicious Celebrations of School Nutrition Success: Farm-2-School + National School Lunch Week

Schools are doing truly incredible things to serve local, fresh – and yes, organic – foods that kids love to eat. To see super salad bars, hyper-local apples (grown five miles from school!), and a lunch with Sautéd Cabbage that students devoured, please visit School Meals That Rock on Facebook. This gorgeous tray from the award-winning Portland (OR) Public Schools is just a tiny taste of the delicious school feast that you can see there. Everything on this tray in OREGON GROWN – and the pear is ORGANIC!! Please take a tour School Meals That Rock and see the amazing food that is loving prepared and served by America’s School Nutrition HEROES!!

Whole Wheat Pizza, cauliflower, organic pear and low-fat milk ALL from Oregon, served in Portland Public Schools to celebrate HealthierUS School Challenge Awards

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)

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.

#ThinkFood with Dayle Hayes, Child Nutrition Leader and Blogger

This was originally posted on the The Dairy Report on September 5, 2012. I really appreciated the opportunity to participate in the Colorado Future of Food conversation and was honored to chat in more depth with Jean Ragalie. 

As Karen Kafer discussed in an earlier post, the dairy team hit the road this summer to participate in “Future of Food: Food in the 21st Century,” a solutions-oriented discussion on food security. Our journey began in Washington, D.C., then continued out west, in Colorado and Arizona, and returned back to the east coast with a summit in Vermont late July. At each summit, I met with various leaders in agriculture, education and government and learned more about dairy’s role in the larger conversation about food security.

At the Colorado event, I was given the opportunity to chat with featured summit speaker and School Meals That Rock creator, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, about her experiences as an event speaker and her thoughts on the future of child nutrition. I’ve included some of our conversation below. In the meantime, I hope you join the discussions online with #ThinkFood and tune into the next summit, scheduled for October 3 in Chicago, with the Midwest Dairy Association!

Jean Ragalie (JR): What was your biggest takeaway from the event in Denver?

Dayle Hayes (DH): The time when I was reminded of what Harry Truman said when signing the first National School Act in 1946: “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers.” It was also interesting that speakers’ comments reinforced this over and over again from different vantage points throughout the event.

JR: With regard to child nutrition, what have you seen really work and create change over the past decade?

DH: I believe that it takes a combination of three factors:

  1. Government regulations and incentives, like the HealthierUS School Challenge
  2. Product innovation, like flavored milk, and food system changes, like more local foods in quantities
  3. Local school champions, like those involved in Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP 60). I can say in my experience, the dairy industry programs and education of all kinds, including FUTP 60, have made a game-changing contribution to the process.

JR: What is the role of school systems in child nutrition?

DH: Essential, obviously. However, for too long, many districts have seen school meals as an irritating necessity. Clearly, the “herd ‘em in, ‘herd ‘em out” mentality is not conducive to dining enjoyment and to trying new foods. Schools must see the cafeteria as equal in importance to the classroom. Otherwise, the new meal patterns will have little sustainable effect.

JR: What are the latest tools available to help improve child nutrition?

DH: New regulations, new products and new programs are important to help improve child nutrition. The 2012 Meal Pattern update will have tremendous implications for child nutrition programs. New products from dairy companies are making it easier to serve tasty, healthful choices. Many national and local organizations provide grants of all sizes to school nutrition programs for training, equipment, and implementation. FUTP 60 is one national example, and there are literally hundreds of others. If a school wants to make improve their nutrition program, there are resources to help them.

JR: If you’re concerned about child nutrition as a health or nutrition professional, what should you do to make a difference?

DH: Partner with the professionals in your school who are also interested in (and required to make) changes with the new regulations. Help your school get the resources they need to make system-wide changes and support the nutrition program within the school and community.

Flavored Milk Update: Let’s focus on what’s important in school nutrition

As a Registered Dietitian (RD) who has dedicated over 30 years of my work and volunteer life to child nutrition, I am astounded that some folks are still focused on banning flavored milk from schools. When I was asked my opinion on banning flavored milk yesterday, I had to update my 2011 column about The Flavored Milk Wars: Is a tempest in a milk carton good for kids’ nutrition? Full Disclosure: I am proud to work with the dairy farm families represented by National Dairy Council and regional dairy councils, such as Western Dairy Association.

Really? Now? When schools need all the help that they can get to roll out historic and challenging new regulations? Our time is better spent collaborating on getting more red/orange/dark green vegetables into kids instead of trashcans, on developing plans for school garden, or a campaign to get more calcium into young people, especially tween and teen girls.

First, let’s look at the state of flavored milk served in schools today. This is not a “milkshake” in a plastic bottle nor the flavored milk that you drank in school. In the past six years, the dairy industry has responded to nutrition concerns and renovated their products dramatically:

  • From 2006 to 2012, the average calories in school flavored milk decreased by 34 calories – to around 130 calories in 8 ounces. This is only about 40 more calories than fat-free white milk.
  • Decreasing calories has been accomplished by reducing fat (to fat-free milk) and reducing added sugar. Added sugar in flavored milk has declined by 40% – by over 6 grams per cup – during the past 6 years.
  • Many dairies now offer fat-free flavored milk with just 10 to 12 grams of added sugar per cup. Some anti-flavor activists fail to remember all milk has 12 grams of natural sugar (lactose) straight from the cow!
  • Now, the fat-free chocolate milk served in many schools across the country has 130 calories, 0 grams of fat and saturated fat, and 22 grams of total sugar. That’s 12 grams from naturally occurring lactose and just 10 grams or 2½ teaspoons of added sugar. 

Next, let’s keep our eyes on the prize – children’s overall health. While some children in the US are getting too many calories for their activity level, a significant number of children are seriously under-nourished. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans listed four nutrients of concern for adults and children: calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and dietary fiber. These nutrients are “of concern” because our low consumption can affect our health today and in the future. Here‘s how nutrients of concern relate to the flavored milk debate:

  • Just like white milk, flavored milk provides three of the nutrients of concern – all of them except dietary fiber.
  • All milks are nutrient-rich beverages. They are packed with what kids need for strong bodies – calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, as well as protein, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B12, riboflavin, and niacin.
  • Milk with school meals – unflavored and flavored – is one of the easiest, least expensive ways to close the gap on nutrients of concern.

Finally, let’s figure out how to work together for optimal school nutrition. Improving child nutrition in the US requires collaboration – among parents, dietitians, chefs, and school nutrition professionals. Right now, school nutrition programs are focused on meeting the new standards mandated by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Honestly, the challenge is not serving healthier foods (more veggie variety, more fruit, more whole grains) – it is insuring that all this nutrition gets into kids not into trashcans.

Banning flavored milk might have the potential for a tiny reduction in calories. However, several national and local studies have confirmed that it is also likely to reduce overall milk consumption. Is this really a smart strategy? Do we want more milk – with all that calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and other nutrients – going into trashcans instead of undernourished kids?

No one – not even the dairy industry – is suggesting that we should push flavored milk at kids. Let’s have fat-free flavored milk as one option in the school cafeteria. Let’s not throw important nutrients out with misplaced concerns about small amounts of sugar.

Let’s put our passion for child nutrition toward effective collaborations improving access to delicious nutrient-rich, more-locally sourced foods at school and at home. Let’s get together on School Gardens, local Farm-to-School projects, and helping kids build “Best Bones Forever.”

USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – or whole new ballgame

On January 26, 2012, USDA released the long-awaited 2012 Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.  According to the website: “Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, USDA is making the first major changes in school meals in 15 years, which will help us raise a healthier generation of children.”

As students head back-to-school meals in cafeterias across the nation, the new standards are generating lots of media buzz with headlines like Schools scrambling to serve up healthier lunch choices, More vegetables, higher prices coming to school cafeteria lunch lines this fall, and Some Cocke County students finding new school lunches hard to swallow. From these news stories, it’s clear that the new guidelines are, sadly, a new whole ballgame for some districts.

The really good news for hungry children, their families and educators is that many schools have been working towards the very same science-based standards for years, even decades. This is especially true for the 3,871 schools that have met the criteria for a HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) award, a strategic component of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. This impressive achievement is a strong indication of how committed school nutrition professionals are to offering students the healthiest meals possible:

“In February 2010, the First Lady and USDA challenged stakeholders to double the number of HUSSC schools within a year and add 1,000 schools per year for two years after that. We exceeded our first goal last June and this year we’ve again exceeded expectations. Not only have we surpassed our second year goal we’ve more than met our goal for June 2013 a year ahead of schedule!

How often does “ahead of schedule” happen in the real world!! Here are some of the key changes what will show up in some schools – and will be just business as usual in many other districts:


Schools are now required to serve a wide-variety of colorful vegetables each week. Additionally, in order for a lunch meal to be reimbursable, each tray will need to include at least ½ cup of fruits and/or vegetables. This will be easy in districts like Lake Stevens, Washington, where students make a “rainbow at the salad bar.”


Students must now be offered a fresh, frozen, dried, or canned (in juice) fruit for lunch. In the Montague, Michigan, School Food Service Department, they serve fruit choices daily on the lunch line. Michigan apples are so popular that Montague set a 2011 Guinness World Record for eating 9,329 apples at the same time.


As per the new standards, at least half of all grains served in school lunch must now be whole grain rich (starting in 2014 all grain products must be whole grain rich). In Douglas County Schools, Colorado, they made popular pizza smarter with a whole grain crust, roasted vegetables, and a balsamic glaze (chosen by a high school student panel).


Under new USDA guidance, schools must offer two varieties of milk: unflavored milk can be non-fat or 1%, while flavored milk must be non-fat. This milk policy has been the standard in Portland (Oregon) Public Schools Nutrition Services for more than a decade. As you can see, they also offer a colorful selection of produce!

Other mandated changes for school lunch meals include:

  • Calorie ranges for three grade groupings (K-5, 6-8, and 9-12)
  • Minimum and maximum servings per week for both grains and meat/meat alternates (cheese, beans, etc.) for each of the grade groupings

New-trition on a School Lunch Tray: What Would Julia Say?

Two things have been top of my mind recently: First, as students head back-to-school, USDA’s new guidelines for school meals have begun to “hit the trays” in cafeterias nationwide. Secondly, foodies everywhere have been celebrating the 100th birthday of Julia Child’s with a veritable banquet of of quotes, tributes and reminiscences.

While I know that Julia Child commented on fast food (in fact, we agree that In-N-Out Burger is our favorite chain), I cannot find any specific opinions she expressed about school lunch. Perhaps that’s because national attention was just beginning to focus on school food when she passed away in 2004. However, based on several of her famous quotes, I have decided that Julia Child would be quite pleased with current school food trends – and would admire the work of my favorite school nutrition heroes as well.

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients. This simple salad from the Power-Up Cafe at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD just outside Houston, Texas, elegantly illustrates the trend toward fresh ingredients in schools. The staff included Romaine lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, jicama and chickpeas (tossed in a chili lime seasoning) to meet the new guidelines for greater vegetable variety on school lunch trays. Now, all they need is a name for the salad; so far my vote is with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I wonder what Julia would have called it – besides gorgeous!

How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex? I know that Julia would have loved Peggy Lawrence, Director of Food Services in Rockdale, Georgia (and the 2012 Georgia SNA Director of the Year). In her district of 16,000 students, many whole grain bread products are baked in each school’s kitchen. Peggy knows that the aroma of made-from-scratch, no-Kleenex-here cinnamon and sandwich rolls brings students and staff into the cafeteria for freshly baked, whole grain goodness. It also helps her menus exceed the new standards for half of all grains products to be whole grain this year.

Peggy and Julia would certainly agree that “… no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” That’s why Peggy and other savvy directors spend plenty of training time – in groups and one-on-one – to insure that the best possible products are served in their schools. From coast-to-coast, school nutrition professionals have been upgrading their culinary skills to roll out the complex USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals, with colorful eye-appleaing menus and the nutrient-richness that children need – minus the excess fat, sodium and sugar that they can do without.

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun! School nutrition professionals have a very important – and very tough – job. They have to meet the new federal standards on minimal budgets (often about $1.00 per lunch for food). They have to satisfy the taste buds of a generation that has grown up on fast food, chicken fingers and pizza. They have to serve hundreds (or even thousands) of students in crowded cafeterias quickly and efficiently. They face criticism from all sides – everyone from principals and parents to TV chefs and teachers thinks they know more about school meals that people who actually prepare and serve them.

And yet, like these smiling professionals at an August 16th back-to-school training in Provo, Utah, they are eager to learn new skills and proud to serve children the safest, most nutritious, best tasting meals possible. They may be a tiny bit fearful about the increased scrutiny that the new lunch guidelines will bring, but I can guarantee you that they know how to have fun! I believe that Julia Child would indeed be proud of these professionals who are “Moving in the Future” and ready to help a generation become fit, healthy, and ready to succeed!

New School Meal Patterns: Do U Have 2 B a Magician?

Delighted to be in Denver for the School Nutrition Association’s 2012 Annual Nutrition Conference – where 6,000+ school food professionals come to taste new items, check out the latest equipment, and listen to the best speakers in the business. Like my colleagues from every state and several foreign countries, I am here to learn, learn, LEARN!

The focus of this meeting is quite clear: Everyone involved in school nutrition is eager (desperate might be a better word) for answers about the rollout of USDA’s 2012 Nutriton Standards for School Meals. The complexity of the meal pattern changes and the questions about students’ reactions can be summarized in a friend’s Tweet from the conference yesterday: “U dont have to b a ‪#dietitian‬ 2 meet the new school guidelines, u hav 2 b a magician”

Here are three “magic wands” that I’ll be looking for at the conference sessions and exhibits: (1) What products and recipes will meet the new meal pattern AND student taste preferences at the same time?

The Zesty Chipotle Chicken Flatbread tray pictured above meets the new meal pattern and fits well into current reimbursement levels. It has also been kid-tested in the Denver Public Schools. I tasted it last night – and loved it. But, many issues still remain in serving trays that meet the new meal pattens:

  • Chipotle (or flatbread for that matter) will work great in some parts of the county and fall flat in others. Where are the hundreds (maybe thousands) of recipe/meal options necessary to please critical students and fit the guidelines?
  • Some of the toughest new requirements are serious restrictions on grains (even whole grains) and meats (even lean ones). Were such restrictions necessary given the new calorie ranges for three age groups (K-5, 6-8 and 9-12)?

(2) What do we need to market/promote/inspire students and staff to ENJOY (in some cases) radically different school meals meals?

It’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority of US children are not currently following the USDA Nutrition Standards when eating at home or in restaurants. It’s going to take some serious marketing and promotion to get the beautiful new meals into kids rather than garbage cans.

  • The staff in Lake Stevens Washington did a FABULOUS job with their “Make a Rainbow at the Salad Bar” promotion. What else are schools doing effectively to motivate kids to enjoy foods they may never have seen before?
  • Marketing and promotion take time, resources, and expertise not always available in school nutrition programs. How are school training staff, finding resources, and collaborating to get the job done?

(3) What can we do create CAFETERIAS that provide positive, pleasant places for students to learn healthful eating habits?

The current “herd ’em in, herd ’em out” mentality in many school cafeterias is not an environment that encourages trying new items and enjoying a variety of flavors on your tray. One school lunch director told me that kids in her school have so little time to eat that “they are still grabbing things off trays while walking toward the trash cans.”

  • Since it’s only nutrition when they eat or drink it, we have to give more time and attention to school meal environments. With all the focus on WHAT is being served, we can not WHERE, WHEN, and HOW school meals are served. 
  • As long as these conditions are less than optimal, we will be feeding garbage cans not kids. I am deeply interested in WHAT schools are doing to address these issues.
STAY TUNED here and on FB SchoolMealsThatRock and Twitter SchoolMealsRock for everything that I learn here in Denver!!

Real Food, Real Challenges, Real Successes in Portland, Oregon, Public Schools

While the food focus may have shifted from the 2012 National Nutrition Month theme of “Get Your Plate In Shape,” to National Garden Month or Soyfoods Month, today the dedicated school nutrition professionals in Portland, Oregon, are doing what they do every month: Tackling the complex job of providing “delicious, high quality, nutrient-rich meals” to thousands of children in an extraordinarily diverse, urban school system. They have the responsibility – and the commitment – to get student trays “in shape for the requirements of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services is just one of many districts dedicated to bringing real food to student trays, while working with the also-very-real financial and regulatory challenges of USDA programs. Serving over 11,000 breakfasts, 21,000 lunches, and 2,500 suppers every day makes PPS Nutrition Services one of the largest “restaurant” chains in the city, with gorgeous salad bars and Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snack programs as well. And, they do this all for about $1.20 per meal for food – fresh and locally sourced whenever possible.

For my money, these folks are more than school nutrition professionals. As White House chef Sam Kass has said on numerous occasions, they are school nutrition HEROES. I have had the pleasure of seeing PPS Nutrition Services in action, mostly recently for this delicious lunch at James John Elementary, winner of a 2012 School Wellness Award from the Oregon Department of Education.

So, how does PPS Nutrition Services work nutrition magic for the 47,000+ students in their district? Like the many other outstanding school nutrition programs, they use three over-arching strategies:

1. They get the big picture.

PPS Nutrition Services sets high standards for their program with a mission of “educating palates, inspiring culinary curiosity, and nourishing the health of the community through school meals.” They participate in national initiatives, like School Food Focus, and in local programs, like EcoTrust’s FoodHub, to leverage limited budgets and purchase as much fresh, local, real food as possible.

This meal from Madison High School Food Week showcases Portland Nutrition Services perfectly with features lemon rosemary Draper Valley chicken, kale salad from the Madison school garden, NW apples and pears, nutrient-rich fat-free/low-fat milk, and a delicious yogurt parfait with Oregon strawberries from the Willamette Valley (fresh frozen no sugar added). Pictured left to right are Stacey Sobell of Ecotrust, Annie Kirschner from Partners for Hunger Free Oregon, and Gitta Grether-Sweeney, PPS Nutrition Director.

2.     They sweat the small stuff.

Walk through a school cafeteria with PPS Registered Dietitian Shannon Stember and her eyes take in every detail – entrée presentation, salad bar food safety, and kids eating (or not) the food on their trays. She has helped to make the translation from MyPlate to the new meal patterns make sense for kids using the trays they actually eat on every day.

Like other excellent programs, Portland, Oregon, only needs minimal changes to meet the new USDA meal patterns for schools meals. Looking ahead, they know that the key will be getting real, sometime finicky kids to eat the nutrient-rich options on their trays. Like smart marketers and motivators, they are looking for every opportunity to get nutrient-rich foods onto student trays – and more importantly, into their bodies!!

3.     They make nutrition appealing and easy.

Knowing that it’s only nutrition when they eat or drink it, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services constantly balances student preferences and nutrition guidelines. They educate children’s palates with new options, like black bean/corn/cilantro salad, while making it easy for kitchen staff to prepare dishes with limited time and equipment. They inspire curiosity through Fresh Fruit and Vegetable snacks in the classroom – and work tirelessly to upgrade the culinary skills of their more than 240 staff members.

Kudos and gratitude to all the enthusiastic school nutrition professionals in Portland – and across the country – who are committed to ensuring that students are well-nourished and ready to learn every day.

New-utrition Standards for School Meals: Another critical piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle”

As a committed Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) volunteer since the original 2002 Summit in Washington, DC, I was honored to write about the release of the long-awaited USDA Nutrition Standards for school breakfast and lunch on for the February issue of the AFHK Connections newsletter. This is a longer version of that article, which is no longer available one the AFHK site.

The first “re-do” of school meal patterns in many years is designed to align meals served in school cafeterias more closely with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new patterns do this in several important ways:

  • Requiring more – and greater variety of – vegetables and fruits, as well as more whole grain-rich breads and cereals
  • Making low-fat and fat-free milk the standard for schools (flavored milk must be fat-free)
  • Establishing minimum – and, for the first time, maximum – calorie levels for three different groups of students (K-5, 6-8, 9-12)
  • Setting targets for reducing sodium levels in school meals from 2014 through 2023

While these are the first new school food regulations in over fifteen years, they aren’t news to school nutrition professionals. Dramatic improvements in school meals have been an ongoing process in districts large and small over the past decade. The northern Virginia district where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the 2012 Nutrition Standards is an outstanding example of excellence in terms of nutrition and overall wellness.

Under the direction of Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Food and Nutrition Services, has received numerous awards, including District of Year from the School Nutrition Association in 2010. Serving an astounding 140,000 customers daily, FCPS links cafeterias, classrooms, school gardens, and other local food sources to create a 9-5-2-1-0 Zip Code for Healthy Kids in the “Energy Zone.” The FCPS program clearly recognizes that food and nutrition are just one important aspect of raising a generation of children that is fit, healthy, and ready to succeed.

As the 2012 Nutrition Standards are implemented across the country, there will undoubtedly be many news stories about school nutrition. I believe that it is important for families and health professionals to look beyond the sensational headlines and clever sound bites to learn what is really happening in their local schools. For example, while “pizza-as-a-vegetable” became one more way to bash school meals last fall, dedicated school nutrition directors and cooks (AKA lunch ladies and gentlemen) were serving amazing pies to appreciative kids from coast to coast. Here are some of their “secret” recipes for pizza and veggies:

  • Vegetables on top of pizza: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, and even salad! Long Beach schools on Long Island, NY, have their own pizza oven and pizza guy. They serve pizza with unlimited salad greens and encourage kids to put their salad ON their pizza – very trendy and very healthy!
  • Pizza with a side of vegetables: For their 2011 Food Day celebration last October, Foster-Glocester High School in Rhode Island served roasted squash medley with Margherita pizza (topped with fresh, local tomatoes). HEB ISD outside of Dallas, Texas, serves baby carrots and a mini-Caesar salad with a personal pizza featuring whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese.

  • Produce bars with a slice of pizza on the side: From Maine to California, kindergarteners to high school seniors have greater access to fresh, often local, veggies and fruits than ever before. In the Roscommon (Michigan) Elementary school, the only problem they have with the salad bar is keeping it stocked during their busy lunch period.
  • Secret sauces with added veggies: Please don’t tell the students, but lunch ladies can be sneaky nutritionists and they are pumping up pizza sauces with all sorts of vegetables, including fresh local tomatoes and spinach, as well as herbs instead of salt for flavor.

I am in absolute agreement with the First Lady, the Agriculture Secretary, and White House Chef Sam Kass – partnerships will be essential for the successful implementation of the new Nutrition Standards for schools. I believe that we must work together – as school nutrition professionals, school food reformers, school food manufacturers, and school food regulators – so that students have access to the meals they need for strong bodies and sharp minds.

And, we must remember that nutrition is just one piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle.” Physical activity, sleep, and even stress reduction are essential for growing children. Fortunately, AFHK programs, like Game On! The Ultimate Wellness Challenge, ReCharge!, and Students Taking Charge, are wonderful resources for schools and communities to use in creating the healthiest possible nutrition and fitness environments for our future.