Additional Roundtable Excerpts
Embracing the Challenges of Change
The October issue of School Nutrition featured excerpts from School Nutrition’s 8th annual Roundtable of Leaders. Space restrictions prohibited the magazine from publishing a number of fascinating insights, reflections and exchanges in its print edition, but these have been made available here. Learn about the backgrounds of each participant, some of their operational achievements, as well as how they are meeting new regulatory challenges. Plus, find out their unanimous agreement on the one thing they would eradicate from K-12 school nutrition programs if they could.
School Nutrition: By way of introduction, please tell us a little about what brought you to the school nutrition segment.
Susan Maffe: I’m a registered dietitian and have a master’s degree in management. This will be my ninth school year in school nutrition. I’ve done hospitals, colleges, CACFP and elderly nutrition. We have about 9,500 students in 13 schools and offer breakfast and lunch at each one. We serve about 1.5 million meals per year.
Lori Adkins: This is my 25th year in school nutrition. We serve 28 school districts in our county, and my function is to provide training and support to all of our constituent districts and also help with bids and purchasing and procurement of school foodservice supplies. In our county, we serve about 90,000 meals a day—72,000 lunches and the rest breakfast.
Deborah Taylor: I’m a registered dietitian now in my 20th year in school nutrition. Before this, I did two to three years in management and then did outpatient teaching and counseling. When I once used to teach people about eating at home, now I get to do that for 4,000 kids every day. All of my staff is 100% certified; we’ve worked really hard on training. Our farm-to-school efforts were recently featured in First Lady Michelle Obama’s book, American Grown. [Editors’ Note: For more on Taylor’s showcase in this book, see “NewsBites/How Does Your Garden Grow?,” September 2012.] It’s nice to be a dietitian and it’s nice to have stuck it out [in this field], because now nutrition is important to everyone.
Robert Lewis: I [administer] three departments: foodservice, nutrition education and the warehouse. El Monte has been in the news this past year. We have won 14 Silver HUSSC awards, and in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, we’ve won seven Bronze, three Silver and two Gold; we’re the only district in the country with two Gold awards. This is my 22nd year in school nutrition and my 25th year in the restaurant business. I’m a big believer in public policy as a motivator for change. That’s why both of my post-graduate degrees are in public policy and public administration.
Sherri Knutson: I think we have a pretty well-rounded program. I’ve been in school nutrition for 22 years and in Rochester for 12 years. I feel that we have a very strong program [serving 17,000 students]. We have a lot of participation, we’re financially stable and we try to be visionary in looking at where child nutrition is going. We try to structure a program that’s a little bit ahead. We have quite a strong training program for our staff with incentives to be members of our state association and SNA. [Editors’ Note: Read more about Knutson, SNA’s 2012 Outstanding Director of the Year, on page xx.]
Joan Shorter: We have 123,000 students and 200 schools. We participate in every child nutrition program, so we are basically feeding all day. We’re close to 60% free and reduced. I have been in school nutrition programs for 30 years. Maryland’s governor is very strong and instrumental in getting programs like breakfast in the classroom in schools. We had 21 schools with breakfast in the classroom this past school year as part of the Walmart grant, and we’ll have 56 schools with universal breakfast in the classroom this fall. We have a lot of initiatives going on, and we receive a lot of assistance from Maryland Hunger Solutions, SNA, which is headquartered in Prince George’s County, FRAC and Share Our Strength.
Debbi Beauvais: I’ve been in school nutrition for 12 years, [after working] in healthcare for 15 years, [while teaching at] community college, [and doing] cooking demos for corporate wellness—all at the same time! I’d always wanted a school job and finally saw a posting at my kids’ school. I did a major song and dance to get this job because my future supervisor said, “You’re a registered dietitian, but I don’t really care about that. You’ve never worked in schools. You’ve worked in hospitals. How difficult could that be?” And with my own naïveté, I was thinking, “How difficult could schools be? It’s only lunch!” But boy, have we come a long way since then.
Rochester, N.Y., is the headquarters of Kodak, [which went bankrupt earlier this year, so the economy here is very different than it used to be]. When I started, our free/reduced rate was 17%, and now it’s 50%. So, the whole dynamic in the district has changed, which has caused our program to change. I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve with a la carte and fruits and veggies. Gates Chili has about 4,500 students, and I [contract for] another district that’s about 1,200 students. I also am the school nutrition spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Doug Davis: I’m starting my 22nd year in school nutrition. I’m a graduate of Culinary Institute, and trained as a chef and in hotel and hotel restaurant management. But I grew tired of that very quickly. …. One of the things I think Burlington does really well is connect with the community. Farm-to-school is a really big part of what we do. USDA chose us as a model site during their “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” efforts. And… with the Jamie Oliver controversy and the debates over chocolate milk, our community was already solidly behind our program. … I have a committee of parents that almost act as a shield, and they field a barrage of questions from other parents.
We do afterschool snacks, supper and breakfast. Breakfast is free for every child in Burlington. We eliminated the reduced-price meal category for breakfast and lunch about five years ago. We’re the first school in the state to do supper. We do senior citizen meals and Meals on Wheels for our community, which I feel is a big part of our ability to connect with taxpayers and property owners, because they really are behind us all the way.
We have gardens, greenhouses…. We cut the ground for an orchard at one of our elementary schools. We have a farmer who’s going to place bees and do a lot of honey making. We buy almost all local beef from Vermont.
Donna Martin: I started out in a school district that had 38,000 students in 58 schools, and that was a challenge. They didn’t have computers; they didn’t have anything. I was there for 9 years, and then moved to my current school district, where I’ve been for 11 years. We’re small and have 84% free and reduced. We’re Provision 2, so all kids eat free. We have the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in all of our elementary schools, and we have afterschool programs and afterschool feeding. We just started a supper program. We’re the second-largest square-mileage county in Georgia, and it’s food desert city. In the summer, we have 14 buses that feed about 3,000 students a day. That program has been extremely, extremely successful..
I’m on the SNF board and am now the treasurer-elect for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and am excited to be doing that and bring the Academy and SNA together. We do some locally sourced things, blueberries, strawberries. We have a big Mennonite community, and this summer, they did a lot—they gave us watermelon and cantaloupes and shucked corn. We have livestock at our high school. We’re pedaling as fast as we can. You never know what you’re going to do, how you’re going to impact a child’s life.
Sonja Anthony: I’ve been in school nutrition for 22 years. We have a diverse population of students—we have 36,000 students in 56 schools. We used to be 17% free and reduced, and now we’re 55%. We have four breakfast-in-the-classroom programs that we’ve had for about eight or nine years. When I came on board as director, we were entering the computer era. Some seasoned managers refused to go from cash register to computer. We have some difficulty getting work force because other school districts sit around us...
I came from healthcare, from trying to deal with persons who had various illnesses to trying to work with kids to not to have those [poor-nutrition-related diseases] you see in healthcare. It’s been a wonderful ride. In 20 or 30 years, you see such much changing… I feel that they’re changing for the better.
SN: [In regard to changes being implemented to meet new federal nutrition standards], I’ve heard that some superintendents are already asking for the six cents and expecting to see it in October, expecting that programs will definitely earn that.
Shorter: States are putting their own spin on it; it is subject to interpretation. One state may be more lenient; another state says, You have to do X, Y and Z. They’re not really clear on it. Every time we go [to training] there’s something different. We’re looking to the state for guidance, and they’re looking to USDA for guidance. … In theory, it’s there, but in practice, those are the things that should have been tested or piloted before [being required].
Maffe: I felt [the changes have] really limited my menus. I really wanted to start introducing more choices at the elementary level, and I couldn’t figure out a way to do it. I went to my boss, and I talked with him about whole grains, just in a general sense, and he looked at me and said, “Whole grains are bad?” … I think it’s going to be more than the kids being upset and the staff being upset. We wrote a letter to parents [and] told them how to block access to a la carte on the kids’ accounts. One of my managers said that if we didn’t have that blocked, kids would blow through a la carte, and she’s absolutely right. We have very strict standards for a la carte in Connecticut, so it’s not like they’re horrific choices, but I still don’t want to see a kid eating baked chips and reduced fat cookies for lunch.
Taylor: I try to work with the parents, and I think [a la carte is] a good way for [older] kids to learn to spend their money in an environment where it’s controlled as to how healthy the food is.
Beauvais: We continue to change…we’re always changing, always growing. [In my district, our] motto is that we have something healthy on the menu that every child wants to eat. I have offered seven or eight choices at the elementary schools and 13 or 14 entrées at the high school. It’s like a food court. ... [But with the new regulations,] we’ve won awards for things that I cannot do anymore. How do you explain that [to the community]? How do you explain when you’ve won a best practice award that you can’t do it anymore because of the new regs? ... We’re all hearing and saying the same things.
On the plus side, I want to mention that when we got our POS, [we started doing something that] I call “build a meal.” My staff can touch a component for every meal on the tray. It’ll be very easy for them to [tell kids if] it’s not a full meal yet. I’ve thought of packaging that main dish with a fruit or vegetable.
Davis: We have a challenge with language barriers and understanding, [but] the advantage is that many of those cultures eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. We also are self-serve [for the students], so that’s going to be a challenge, and we’re working on training our staff.
But with 30 million meals a day served, my concern is a capacity issue. If we’re consuming upwards of an additional 40 million portions of fruits per day, living in the Northeast where we like to think we can grow all the food we need? Realistically, we rely on California and Texas and Florida, and we need to buy American because that’s the law. Are we going to be able to support this?
I’m a real supporter of farmers, and we need to make sure that we’re growing as much food as we can and helping the rest of the world to do it, as well. But realistically, are we going to be able to afford 40 million extra portions a day—or 50 million extra once breakfast is phased in—if the supply drops? And what’s that gonna look like in the grocery store? If parents are going to support what we’re doing by buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store [to eat at home], are we putting forward something reasonable that they can afford, if capacity does become an issue?
Knutson: I was watching something on TV, and they were addressing that very issue about government subsidies for the grain products. There was a lobbying effort that started out with the food and vegetable growers in the nation trying to say, ‘We’re going to be called to grow more, produce more because of these new regulations, so we need to be able to stay strong.’ … So, it’ll be really interesting to see the movement from the purveyors and the producers of fruits and vegetables and to see if they’re successful in their efforts to address exactly what you’re saying.
Davis: I’d be interested in seeing if someone has [researched whether] there will literally be enough.
Lewis: Speaking for California, I’d appreciate it if we could have some more produce industry and could stop covering strawberry fields with million-dollar houses. We have the richest soil on earth, and they keep covering it with cement and houses. It makes you sick. I used to live in Oxnard, and we had the best strawberries, lemons and oranges, and now over a quarter of that has been buried.
SN: Regarding capacity, I’ve read that the export market is better for some farmers to direct their crops in certain cases.
Davis: If our fresh fruits are being shipped out and we’re relying on bringing in fruits from Chile, what are we going to be look at a year or two from now? I just wonder. Is the failure [for school meals] going to be based on supply and demand?
Martin: I do think that about the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant. When I was awarded it this year, I was working with the vendor, and he wanted to deliver once a week. I said, “We can’t have you deliver once a week because I need 1,300 extra servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every single day of the week.
And that’s another thing people haven’t thought about: space. I need cooler space to store all of these fresh fruits and vegetables. You can do some canned, but then they’re higher in sodium, and you can do some frozen, but then you need freezer space. And that’s a real issue.
Davis: If you want to do fresh, which I think is the spirit of the new law, once you get into seasonality issues, especially in the Northeast, your varieties really diminish, and kids will get sick of eating apples and pears. Those are wonderful fruits, but you [will want others], and it’s hard to afford bringing those in [in the off-season].
Lewis: Going back to the whole-grain issue, we like to do a lot of our own baking. We have a big central kitchen, and we do sweet potato bread, blueberry bread and zucchini bread. So, now we have to reformulate all of our recipes to make sure we’ve got those 16 grams. That’s going to be a lot of work.
Martin: I’m concerned about next year. We do breakfast in the classroom, and that’s extra servings of fruits. We have just ordered a $175,000 packaging machine that will package our own fruit for breakfast in the classroom because you cannot expect your staff to dish up 1,300 servings to send out … We start looking at the extra cost of that fruit—50 cents a day, that’s unsustainable.
Lewis: One more issue is serving time. When you’re not eating junk food and you’re eating real food, it takes time to dine. … Most people don’t have enough time. [Also] preschoolers and kindergartners don’t have the [strong] teeth [for many fresh produce items]. If you’re going to give them apples, you need to give them sliced apples, and there’s an extra cost there. I really think that the next big wave that we, as SNA, need to push is a mandated serving time.
Taylor: They will eat all their applesauce, no problem, because they can slurp it down. But even if you’ve sliced [the apple] for them, they’re not going to eat it. They’re not going to have time.
Davis: And if they have braces, they’re not going to be eating whole apples.
SN: What is one thing, thinking in broad strokes, that you would like to eradicate from school nutrition if you had one wish?
Knutson: The thing that came to mind for me is eliminating free and reduced. It should be universal.
Unanimous group agreement.
Knutson: It would eliminate verification and create kind of a step ladder effect so that we would have more time to put into creative menu planning and some of the fun things we would like to be able to do with our programs.
Beauvais: You don’t have to stand on your head or feel the pressure. If everyone eats at school, you know what you’re getting [for your bottom line].
Taylor: A healthy meal should be a part of a school day. And as long as we’re put in the position to entice students to eat with us, it will be a kid-driven menu. And we’re all smart enough to take any food you give us and make it in a healthful way. We can all do that, and we do it well. The public doesn’t always know that when they read our menus, but the kids read our menus and they decide whether they’re going to choose to eat with us.
As a society, when we look back to when we started losing control with obesity in kids, where is the one place where we’re all on a level playing field? I’ve got a lot of poor kids. In my district, the poor and the middle class, they come in together and learn from each other. They all would love to be middle-class kids. ...The poor kids are watching the middle-class kids eat out of vending machines and have the a la carte items, and that’s how they think middle-class people eat all the time, because that’s what they’re being exposed to. They want to be different. When they’re grown-ups and they’re getting food stamps, they are now making their own food choices [based on what they’ve been exposed to looking at their peers]. But that’s not the way [middle-class] families are eating at home—we hope! But [the poorer kids] don’t know any different. If we could just have a healthy meal be part of the school day, that would begin to alter our entire society.
SN: Alright then, what’s a second wish you’d like to see related to the federal child nutrition programs?
Martin: I wish that the food stamp program was structured like the NSLP. In my district, 60% of my families are on food stamps, and when I go to the Walmart or the grocery store and see what they’re doing and what they’re buying, I think, ‘Why does [the government] tell us what we have to buy? If food stamps were the same way, my kids would come to school wanting to eat healthy. When they get a taste of potato chips and Kool-Aid at home, it’s hard to change those taste buds to eat things lower in sodium, sugar and fat. So I wish the food stamps program had the same rules and regs as the NSLP.
Adkins: I wish that school breakfast were universal. Instead of having to check kids in at the point of service, which is a barrier to participation. We have different constraints in the morning than we do at lunch. At lunch, our kids are brought in by classroom, and they have a structured time to eat. Breakfast is different; they get off the bus, they walk to school, they’re coming in at different times. For someone to check them off and [go through steps before] they give them their breakfast, it’s just a barrier to participation. We see that across the country and in our county. We serve our 72,000 lunches. We should do 72,000 breakfasts, not 18,000. I think universal breakfast would really help stronger participation in that program.
Taylor: I initiated Provision 2 at all of my sites, even though if you look at the numbers, [it wouldn’t seem that I have] a high enough free and reduced rate at each of the sites to do that. I saw all of these [other districts] doing universal breakfast, and they’re still doing point of sale or having the teachers check off [student participation]. But if you’re going to be giving away a free breakfast anyway, establish a baseline year and then you just claim it at that, and you don’t have that point of sale [responsibility] anymore. And it’s wonderful. … We have not suffered at all financially by doing that.
Lewis: Regional indexing for reimbursement would be my one other wish. Alaska and Hawaii get higher reimbursements, but it costs just as much to live in L.A. County, especially where our kids are, as it does to live in Honolulu. So why are we getting the same reimbursement as other districts in the state? And to get labor, we have to go way above minimum wage. And sometimes, with the fruits and vegetables food cost is much higher being in a metropolis. And I’m not just talking about California; I’m talking about any area with a higher cost of living.
School Nutrition again thanks all of the participants of this year’s Roundtable for their candid, thoughtful feedback.