Grace and Gratitude: 10 Truths about School Meals, Labor Day, 2021

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Some of my best friends are school nutrition professionals. On any ordinary Labor Day, I would salute their hard work, post a few photos of colorful school meals, and move on. But this is no ordinary Labor Day, especially since it is the second observance during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, September 6 is also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time of introspection and reflection. September is Hunger Awareness/Action Month as well.

For all these reasons, I am sharing some important news about school meals and the dedicated professionals who plan, prepare and serve them to 30 million plus children every school day. There is good news: All students K-12 can enjoy school meals at no cost during SY 2021-22, along with challenging news: Feeding all students K-12 during SY 2021-22 is no easy task. Unfortunately, there is also sad news: School nutrition heroes are being treated with disrespect – by school administrators, by educators, by families, and, in some worst-case scenarios, by their colleagues in the nutrition community.

In my opinion, the only things that we should be saying to school nutrition professionals this September are thank you and what can I do to help? Like your mom told you, if you cannot say kind things, please don’t say anything at all. Here’s why:

1. School lunch ladies and food dudes are true heroes. When COVID shut down the US in March 2020, school nutrition programs kept serving meals for hungry families – curbside drive-thrus when virtually every restaurant was closed, and many grocery stores had empty shelves.

2. School nutrition professionals are exhausted. They have served billions of emergency meals on the frontlines with little time to rest and recuperate. They have been creative with meal kits, emergency food boxes and dining in the classroom – but now they are tired, very tired.

3. Healthy school meals for all increases participation. School nutrition professionals know the face of childhood hunger. They saw it before the pandemic, and they watched food insecurity grow during COVID. They are eager to feed as many students as possible and to see meal counts go up.

4. School meal programs are struggling with staffing. Help-wanted signs are everywhere in foodservice. School food programs are short-staffed at the same time they have more students in line for meals. Scratch cooking with fresh and local ingredients also requires more labor hours.

5. Schools have serious problems getting food they order. If you’ve heard the term supply chain disruptions, you know that food products and equipment are also hard to come by. School nutrition programs are having trouble getting many student favorites in the increased amounts they need.

6. School dining spaces have strict safety guidelines. Keeping kids safe during COVID takes extra work and vigilance. Social distancing while eating and keep dining spaces clean requires extra staff time that is already in short supply. Students may also need extra TLC as they adjust to being back in school.

7. School nutrition leaders go the extra mile every day. They go to work on a holiday to take a delivery that cannot wait until Tuesday. They go in on a weekend to check a freezer alarm. They leave their office computers to go into schools to wash dishes, cut up veggies, serve meals and whatever else is necessary.

8. Contingency planning for B-C-D-E is the new normal. Even the best run programs need much more that a plan B. Directors are continually planning for the “unexpected” – school closures, staff rosters with necessary CVOID quarantining, postponed deliveries and _______________.

9. Rather than complaining, take time to help or support. Give school nutrition professionals grace for doing the best they can, with what they have, in very difficult situations. If you are in a school, take a few minutes to handout meals at a breakfast cart or to wipe down tables between classes in the cafeteria.

10. A simple “thanks” can do wonders. It doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate. Handmade cards from students are always in style. These thank you cards from USDA Team Nutrition are easy to download and send or print out: https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/stronger-school-meals-educational-materials

Georgia on My Mind: #GoldenRadish, #LeafItToSpinach, #HealthiestSchools, and #HarvestBright

I’ve been waiting for the right inspiration to kickstart my blog again. I got it on Monday at the 2016 #GoldenRadish ceremony in the Georgia State Capitol. I was beyond honored to speak briefly about the 53 districts, representing over 39 million school meals featuring both regional and local Georgia Grown products, 8246 farm to school taste tests, 575 school gardens and so much more. The number of #GoldenRadish awards have expanded dramatically since the original 30 in 2014. The #GoldenRadish committee keeps adding new categories – Outstanding District award in 2015 and a planned 2017 Platinum award – challenging districts to grow better and better farm to school programs.leafittospinach

At Statham Elementary School, a site in the Gold Level #GoldenRadish Barrow County School Nutrition District, Diana Cole and her special needs students have explored #LeafItToSpinach as part of their October #FarmToSchool Month lessons. As I entered the classroom Tuesday, they were reading Sylvia’s Spinach before tasting Spinach Lasagna, enjoying the Spinach Brownies they had made themselves, and going out to check on their newly planted spinach seeds in the school garden. 2016-10-25-sylvias-spinachAfter the garden we all enjoyed Georgia Grown Spinach Salad (and carrots too) for school lunch. While award ceremonies feature state officials and fancy plaques, the real work of changing how Georgia’s children eat is moving forward with #onesmallstep at a time in classrooms like Diana’s Cole’s every school day.2016-10-25-statham-lunch

I’ve been following Bibb County Schools – aka Eat Right, Be Bright – for years. Director Cleta Long does an outstanding job and folks know it: SIXTEEN Bibb County Schools were recognized this year among America’s #HealthiestSchools by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Cleta and her staff take their Gold Level #GoldenRadish status seriously with boxes and boxes of local produce served all year round in deliciously appealing ways.apple-collageBibb County’s healthy ways extend beyond the cafeteria to Georgia Grown parades for #FeedMySchool week in hallways, nutrition education in classrooms, science-lessons in school gardens, and real field trips to local farms. In addition to 16 #HealthiestSchools awards, Bibb County was recognized with two Georgia School Nutrition Association #BestPractice awards and ten Let’s Move Active Schools.

#HarvestBright is the new tagline for Burke County Public Schools Farm to School Program, the Outstanding District honored at Georgia Organics 2016 #GoldenRadish ceremony. Director Donna Martin, President-Elect of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, was recently described as the “Ultimate Lunch Lady.” Donna actively promotes the benefits of #FarmToSchool and #SchoolMealsThatRock from the fields of Burke County to the White House Garden. donnaDonna travels the world to promote Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and the Academy, but she is still happiest eating lunch with Burke County Public School students, out standing in collard fields with organic farmer Sam Adderson, or planning new ways to get even more local products, like grits, onto school lunch trays and farmers market shopping bags.

group-photoBarrow, Bibb and Burke counties were just three of the award-winning districts celebrated on the steps of Georgia Capitol on October 24, 2016. There are 50 more districts with dedicated directors from the Atlantic coast to the mountains of north Georgia. How has Georgia Organics been able to successfully grow the #GoldenRadish Awards for all these Georgia districts doing such extraordinary work in farm to school? It’s really pretty simple: Georgia Organics coordinates the #GoldenRadish Awards with the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and Georgia Department of Public Health, a powerful team to make the dream of local food for local kids work. It’s really no wonder that, according to USDA’s 2015 Farm to School Census, 62 percent of Georgia districts participate in farm to school programs – well above the 42 percent of districts nationwide. For more about all the current award winners and next year’s applications, please visit the Georgia Organics website at https://georgiaorganics.org/for-schools/goldenradish and blog at https://georgiaorganics.org/2016/10/53-georgia-school-districts-honored-farm-school-success/

Going Green from the Inside Out

Best wishes for healthy Happy St. Patrick’s Day filled with the luck of the Irish and lots of naturally green vegetables. 

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  • One example of fabulous Dig In Posters from USDA Team Nutrition

    One example of fabulous Dig In Posters from USDA Team Nutrition

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