15 Sep Heart Centered, Kid Focused School Meals
School nutrition teams, well accustomed to significant challenges such as scarce budgets, a dwindling labor force, daunting paperwork, meeting diverse food needs and wants of students, junk food companies with millions of marketing dollars, and more, now face the reality of remote learning and heightened health concerns. At one time the threats to school nutrition programs might have seemed as though they couldn’t become any greater. Yet, here we are.
Meanwhile, we have seen the growing need for an effective school nutrition program. More kids are hungry, greater economic disparities exist between whites and People of Color, and strong immune systems are more dire. Now more than ever, we need heart centered, kid focused nutrition programs. We need to know that all students are eating well, not simply being fed.
How do we know kids are eating well? In the kitchens where we work, we measure a few key data points.
- Fresh and local food: We input receipts into a data system to analyze the percentage of purchases that are fresh and local. We then set goals on where we want to be and when we want to get there. There’s no one right way. Kids know good food and they know what they want. They might not make the best decisions all the time, but most of the time they want their food to taste appealing, look appetizing, and help them feel their best. We have found that nothing meets their standards as consistently as fresh and locally grown food. During remote learning in the spring we continued to see increased participation on the fresh and local meal days compared to the typical school menu.
- Engage the kids in the cafeteria conversation: Like all of us, students want to express themselves and be heard. Engaging kids is an area where you almost can’t do too much. At a minimum we conduct taste tests with 10% of the student population throughout the school year. We find written or electronic surveys to be most helpful on seeking feedback about specific meals. However, to allow for opportunities of authentic listening and student transformation, we look to conversations which can be done on the phone or through video online.
- Engage the cooks in the cafeteria conversation: The front line staff know as well as anyone what the kids say with their voices and their faces. Daily or weekly input from the cooks into the menu development is paramount to kids eating well. Furthermore, the cooks make the food and will put more love and attention into a cause and a menu they stand behind.
- Measure plate waste: Not as easy when eaters are scattered, but worth figuring out. With up to half the school meal ending up in the garbage, it time to know for sure what’s going to waste and what nutrition the kids are missing out on.
- Connect the cafeteria to the (virtual) classroom: As a society we’re overworked and underpaid. Convenience foods tempt us with short term gain, but I believe what we’re seeing unfold in the world has much to do with the food choices we make on a daily basis. A unified classroom and cafeteria offers an opportunity for school teams to work together toward improving student life. Additionally, we see transformational discovery take place in the classroom when students connect their lunch to their learning.
A heartfelt congratulations to all the school food warriors hanging on and standing strong in the quest to feed our kids well in the hopes that they become exactly what they were meant to be.