Next Steps in the Evolution of School Meals: Dedication, Innovation, and Collaboration

As you have probably heard, USDA released the long-anticipated new Nutrition Standards for school breakfast and lunch on January 25, 2012. The new regulations align the meals served in school cafeterias more closely with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These new meals patterns do that 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 maximum calorie levels for three different ages groups (K-5, 6-8, 9-12)
  • Setting a 10+ year timeline for reducing sodium

While these are the first new school meal patterns in more than a decade, they are not news to school nutrition professionals. Improvements in school meals have been an ongoing process in districts large and small – long before celebrity chefs brought the issue to the headlines. The district where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the announcement last Wednesday is, in fact, an outstanding example of excellence in school nutrition. Under the direction of Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Food and Nutrition Services in northern Virginia, has received numerous awards, including District of Year from the School Nutrition Association in 2010. Serving an astounding 140,000 customers daily, this is probably not the school lunch you remember. FCPS links cafeterias, classrooms, school gardens, and other local food sources to create a 9-5-2-1-0 Zip Code for Health Kids in the “Energy Zone.”



A recent USDA blog about the new-trition standards acknowledges the leadership and commitment of school nutrition professionals. I have seen this dedication firsthand from Virginia to my state of Montana. The staff at Gallatin Gateway School (185 students, K-8) just north of Yellowstone Park, have truly dedicated themselves to nutrition excellence. It’s one thing to have nutrition standards and put nutrient-rich food onto trays. However, food is only nutrition WHEN kids eat it. If school meals go into the trash can, they are garbage. But, trust me, thanks to the hard work of everyone from Superintendent Kim DeBruckyer to Chef Jason Moore, very little food is wasted at Gallatin Gateway. The meals are appealing and tasty – and the cafeteria atmosphere encourages children to try to new foods and enjoy eating with their friends. One of many reasons why Gallatin Gateway just won a Gold Award in the HealthierUS School Challenge and why the cafeteria is featured in a Montana Team Nutrition video on pleasant, positive mealtimes.


Speaking of videos, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District (HEB-ISD) outside Dallas, Texas, uses videos to teach students how to get more fruits and veggies with their 7 Rules of the Salad Bar video. The dedicated school nutrition heroes at HEB-ISD Child Nutrition Services, led by director Mary Beth Golangco Ratzloff, MS, RD/LD, are excellent examples of innovation on many levels beyond their use of online video technology. This elementary school lunch showcases the innovation in product and preparation that will be necessary for all districts to implement the new meal patterns. The milk – fat-free and flavored – represents a dairy industry renovation that meets the nutrition standards with a taste profile that kids love to drink. The “Mac-and-Trees” (made with hidden broccoli!) uses low-fat cheese, along with an innovative high-protein, whole-grain pasta. What delicious ways to get nutrition into kids (but please don’t advertise that it is good for them)!!


I am in complete 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 student will eat the meals they need for strong bodies and sharp minds. A wonderful example of the resources available to help all groups involved in schools is USDA new materials: Healthier Middle Schools: Everyone Can Help. The handouts, videos, and posters reach all school groups (principals, teachers, students, parents, and school food service) with the same positive messages.

What Districts Will Need to Implement New Meal Patterns: Lessons from the Wild West

I don’t have crystal ball, so I can’t tell you any details of the new and improved USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals. We’ll all learn tomorrow morning when the final regulations are released with the star power of the First Lady and Rachel Ray at Parklawn Elementary School in Virginia.

IMHO the true heroes of the morning event will be Penny McConnell, MS, RD, and the staff of Fairfax Country Public School Nutrition Services who will prepare the lunch for hungry kids. Just like they do every day!

I can tell you what it will take to implement the new meal patterns – whatever they may be – in any district, from LA Unified with hundreds of thousands of students to Gallatin Gateway, Montana, with less than 200. Districts will need:

  • A team of school wellness champions to support changes.
  • An in-depth understanding of the business of school foodservice.
  • A commitment to open and continuous innovation.

I saw all three of these strategies hard at work in Gillette, Wyoming, last week. Campbell County is part of the mining/oil/gas “boom” in eastern Wyoming, where the school district serves 8,400 students (free-reduced about 35%) in an area of about 5,000 square miles.

Celebrating Success in Campbell County School District (CCSD)

In terms of healthy schools for healthy students, CCSD already implements best practices throughout the school day – from breakfast in the classroom to 30 minutes of active recess before lunch. While they are well positioned to implement new meal patterns, it will still be a challenge to work within budget, procure needed food products, and – most importantly – get kids to actually consume what is served!

Campbell County CHAMPIONS for Healthy Kids

From left to right, four of the folks who support the district’s long term commitment to wellness – Rachel Wilde (TriFit Coordinator), Mike Miller (champion for wellness in Wyoming for several decades), Judy Barbe (WY Action for Healthy Kids Western Dairy Association), and Bryan Young, Director of Nutrition Services.

The BUSINESS of School Foodservice

While Bryan may look young enough to enjoy a student-priced lunch, he brings the business savvy and experience that school nutrition programs will need to implement the new regulations. He came to the job less than a year ago from managing a very popular local restaurant. He’ll need to use every trick in the book to serve even more fruits and veggies with the new pattern, especially considering that he, like many directors, have only about a dollar to spend on food after paying for labor costs. Want more fresh produce, smoothies, and yogurt parfaits? That means higher labor costs too!

On-going INNOVATION and Creativity

Honestly, school nutrition directors have to be nutrition magicians to put these delicious and healthful items on a tray using the budgets they have. And, getting on the food is just the first step – then you have to get the food into the students!!

Here is the thing: It’s only nutrition when kids eat it. If food goes into a trashcan, it’s garbage not nutrition. Getting kids to enjoy the healthful meals served in school cafeterias is another magic trick – one that takes marketing creativity, product innovation (like whole wheat buns that kids like!), and presentation, presentation, presentation (love the kiwi on the yogurt parfaits).

KUDOS to Campbell County, Wyoming … and THANKS for a delicious lunch!