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Small Changes Produce Big Results in Rockwood

School food changes course

In 2010 Congress passed the Hunger-Free Kids Act to ensure that students in America’s schools have access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults. The law addressed both foods served as part of the National School Lunch Program, and foods sold throughout the school building, such as in school stores, during in-school fundraisers, and in vending machines (often called competitive foods).

During the 2012–2013 school year, schools across the country aligned their school meals with new federal standards to ensure kids are being fed healthy food at school. And as a result of the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards that went into effect July 1 for the 2014–15 school year, more schools across America will be offering healthier snacks and beverages.

Many schools participating in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, such as Rockwood School District in Eureka, Missouri, have already moved to more nutritious snacks and drinks—and found that students will buy and eat healthier foods and beverages. In fact, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, which helped inform USDA’s updated standards.

Carmen Fischer has been the Child Nutrition Director of Rockwood School District since 2003, overseeing the district’s 30 kitchens and nearly 22,000 students. Her district began gradually introducing changes to the food served in its schools in 2001 and joined the Healthy Schools Program in 2013. “The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has offered support to educate the folks in the classrooms in the school buildings. It’s hard for me to reach those folks, but the Alliance helps bring everyone together,” she said.

A recipe for improvement

Over the past 11 years, Fischer has learned a thing or two about getting students—and parents and staff—to embrace healthier foods at school. She shared some of her tricks of the trade:

  • Make changes gradually. “My mission was to make gradual changes so they were not so noticeable,” said Fischer. She began by reducing the fat content of milk from 2 percent to 1 percent, and eventually to skim. Next she swapped french fries for mashed potatoes several days per week and introduced salad bars. Other improvements include switching to whole grain pizza crust and 100 percent juice, and removing salt packets from cafeteria tables.
  • Use all the tools in your toolbox. Fischer shares credit for her success with her partners, including dietetic interns who teach nutrition lessons to students and the Alliance’s online tools and resources. “We’ve used [the Alliance’s] list of items that meet the standards for vending machines and the Smart Snacks Product Calculator and passed those onto our Parent Teacher Organizations.”
  • Make it fun. “Kids love food art!” said Fischer. She suggests mixing up the way fruits and vegetables are presented to students to encourage them to try a variety. Last year several Elementary schools served “dolphins” made out of bananas and grapes. “Some schools ran out of bananas that day!” she said.
  • Think outside the (cupcake) box. Moving parents and teachers away from serving unhealthy foods during classroom celebrations was challenging. But Fischer and her staff came up with an idea that pleased everyone. “Some schools didn’t want to discontinue birthday treats so we offered a birthday menu so that they could order items from us and have it delivered to the classroom,” she said. “It could be a low fat yogurt, Italian ice with 100 percent juice, or raisins.”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. Fischer encourages schools to work with their vendors to find foods that meet their needs. “Our vendors have been great,” she said. “They provided lists for us of a la carte items that will meet the new regulations.”

A snapshot of success at Rockwood

Fischer knows that her efforts at Rockwood School District have paid off. She sees real change in both the amount of healthy foods that kids are eating and the attitudes of parents and staff. “In elementary schools, we have kids coming back up and buying baby carrots and raisins. It’s awesome!” she said.

Despite the healthful improvements she’s made to Rockwood’s menus, Fischer says her revenue hasn’t been impacted. She suggests that is due in part to her insistence on offering reimbursable meals to all students, and reducing a la carte options. She said, “All the entrees that we offer could be included in the reimbursable meal so I really haven’t felt much of an impact because we haven’t had to change our entrees at all.”

Lastly, Fischer views her success through the lens of a mother to a seventh grader. “One of his projects at summer school was to identify problems within the school. The school invited parents and administrators to attend the presentation,” she said. What she witnessed was a panel of middle school students making a case for healthy, fresh lunches and more time to finish their meals in the cafeteria. A second presentation focused on the need for students to have more minutes of recess each day. “Kids are getting it that they need to have physical activity and things like that to go along with their education,” she said. “They know it helps them learn.”

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