Fueling Education, the Business of Feeding Our Students

Imagine a restaurant that serves close to 8,000 breakfast and more than 16,000 lunch meals per day with the pickiest of eaters whose nutritional needs must be carefully balanced. While a restaurant like that may not exist, that is the job of the Alachua County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services where countywide approximately 265 food service employees provide students with access to a variety of affordable and appealing foods that meet the health and nutritional needs of students.

A Center for Disease Control Report showed that a lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or dairy products, and deficits of specific nutrients like Vitamins A, B6, B12, C, folate, iron, zinc and calcium are associated with lower grades and higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness among students.

In 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) changed their nutritional guide from a food pyramid to MyPlate—a circle divided into four sections of approximately 30 percent grains, 40 percent vegetables, 10 percent fruits and 20 percent protein, accompanied by a smaller circle representing dairy, such as a glass of milk or a yogurt cup. This change was made to more easily educate children and families on nutritional needs.

Part of Alachua County Schools Food and Nutrition Services is not only feeding students but also educating them about making good nutritional choices, said Caron Rowe, food service specialist for Alachua County Schools.

“We have a ‘collect the stars’ system using the MyPlate colors that helps the student understand the components that they need to collect to make their meal selection,” Rowe said. “This also helps with waste because the students are not having to take something they do not want.   We have the ‘star’ system explained on menu signage as they walk into the line and it carries through to the line label signage in front of each component.”

The USDA also introduced the Smart Snacks program which carefully balances science-based nutrition guidelines with practical and flexible solutions to promote healthier eating on campus.

Alachua County Schools nutrition officials also realize that for children to choose healthy eating, they must enjoy the food. The schools use taste tests to assess what kinds of meal and snacks to offer.

“Our district does a large amount of taste testing with student groups to ensure that our snack and menu offerings are a hit with the students before we menu them,” Rowe said. “Items must score 3.75 or higher on a scale of 1-5 to be considered for our district. Our district Chef Moss Crutchfield does a great job keeping on trend with what the students are seeing at restaurants and replicates them for the menu.”

Other methods the district uses to ensure that students enjoy the menu items while keeping them nutritionally sound include using alternative seasonings for recipes that ensure flavor.  New to last year’s menu were several items such as scratch made pesto, tomato soup, Caesar dressing, tzatziki sauce, among others.

“We did a Pop-Up customized salad bar promotion at a secondary school last year,” Rowe said. “Our staff controlled the portions and the students walked down the line like Chipotle and other customization lines.  It was so successful that we are implementing this monthly as a permanent line option for our students. We also have a food truck ‘On Point’ that rotates to high schools daily. It offers a customized ticket option for the students to choose their meal components.”   

In 2013, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services awarded the county a $50,000 grant as a district that showed growth in using locally sourced agriculture in their school nutrition program. At the time, only 24 schools with students who have primarily free or reduced lunch received fresh produce. In 2018, every school in the district now has fresh, locally grown produce in their school meals through the Farm to School program.

Studies have shown that students who can see where food grows or have a hand in growing food are more likely to eat it. A recent study conducted by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) found that children who were in school districts with Farm to School programs ate more fruits and vegetables.

In addition to food purchased from local farms, school gardens at 15 schools are producing salad fixings and collard greens for school lunches. School gardens grew 1,750 pounds of fruits and vegetables for the county’s school lunch program. For the 2017-18 school year, the Farm to School program produced 25,491 pounds of fruit and vegetables grown on local farms and processed through the Farm to School to Work Hub which resulted in $45,317 remained in the local economy due to local purchasing for school meals.

One hundred students visited the Farm to School Hub on field trips, helping with chores and learning about nutrition, and “Meet the Farmer” and Harvest of the Month promotional materials and trading cards were continued and given out to students for the second year.

Innovative methods like these provide immense benefits to both children and families. The district’s registered dietician Eunshil McKenna works with UF dietetic students offering a cooking class for after school programs.  In this class they make menu salads and other items. Each student goes home at the end of the series of classes with a recipe booklet. She also works with the school wellness committees at each of the schools, and the district shares a quarterly newsletter with the public.

“Showing students that it’s important to have a balanced meal by selecting something from each food group is so important.  Also, showing students and families that there are more ways to season foods than with just salt,” Rowe said. “Spices and fresh from the farm items are so important to have as part of your meal.  Our school gardens and the teachers that are our school garden champions help with doing their part in educating students of how gardens are grown!”

Another growing problem locally and nationally is food insecurity, which is when children and families don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. The CDC also found that hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade, and an inability to focus among students. School nutrition services have increasingly worked to improve nutrition, accessibility of meals like breakfast or dinners in some schools and worked with local charities to provide backpack services for weekends and holidays.

“I believe it’s critically important to have food in the schools. For some children, the food they receive at school may be the only healthy meals they receive,” said Linda B. Bobroff, Ph.D., R.D.N., Professor and Extension Nutrition Specialist in the University of Florida Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. “They also may not be getting adequate nutrients and vitamins they need. People mistakenly think that if school meals are nutritious that children won’t eat it but it’s not true when the school system works together to make creative, nutritious recipes that can easily be replicated.”

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications. Beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, fourteen schools in the district were added to the CEP program, which will automatically qualify students for free breakfast and lunch.

Coupled with the farm to school and MyPlate nutritional programs, Alachua County Schools Food and Nutritional Services works to ensure that the district’s children are fed healthy and nutritious meals that will help them be academically successful and happy, Rowe said.

By Tracy Wright

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