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Keeping it Fresh in Topeka, Kansas

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School food changes course

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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 Topeka Public Schools in Topeka, Kansas, 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.

Niki Jahnke became Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Topeka Public Schools in 2005. She brings perspective to her position, both as a parent and from working in the healthcare industry for 25 years. She is passionate about offering healthier foods to students and works hard to ensure her changes are sustainable.

A recipe for improvement

Topeka Public Schools is the largest district in Shawnee County, serving more than 14,000 students, nearly 77 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch. With such a large, urban population, Jahnke believes it is especially important to set a healthy example in the school environment because many of the children live in underserved neighborhoods where healthy foods and safe places to play aren’t easily accessible. “If we can set an example for our children in school then they can carry that on and teach their children in the future, too,” she said. Eighteen of the district’s 26 schools are currently enrolled in the Healthy Schools Program.

Drawing on her nine years of experience on the front lines of school food, Jahnke shared some of her lessons learned:

  • Diversify to increase revenue. Schools may initially see a slight drop in revenue as they roll out new options that students need to adjust to. To balance that, Jahnke suggests offering additional meal options through summer food, school breakfast, or afterschool meals that can generate revenue. “We are applying for twelve different feeding sites to go with the community eligibility provision this next year so I am hoping that through that, we can increase participation at breakfast and lunch and that will make up for the revenue dollars that we will receive,” she said.
  • Spice up your menu! You never know what might resonate with students until you give it a try. Jahnke has been surprised by how much her students enjoy vibrant, spicy flavors from ethnic dishes. “The intense flavors—like Thai—are a focus now. I know that’s a popular thing in many schools, and also in restaurants,” she said. “I think it’s exciting—we want to do a spice bar so that kids can add salt-free spices to their food.”
  • Keep it fresh. Topeka Public Schools have already complied with the new Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards. Jahnke says the selection of foods that meet the current standards, available through the Alliance’s Product Navigator tool, is not as robust as she would like, but that new options frequently become available. “We send out a bid twice a year so if new foods are developed, we’ll be able to add them really soon,” she said. “You need to keep those offerings fresh—keep new things coming if you plan on using that as a source of revenue.”
  • Create a “share table.” As a mom, Jahnke also knows that kids have different preferences and they can change over time. To prevent students from tossing the less preferred foods into the waste can, cafeteria staff set up “share tables” where students can leave un-opened food items, such as a bag of baby carrots or a carton of skim milk, for others to eat. This tactic both gives kids a chance to try new foods and limits food waste.

A snapshot of success at Topeka Public Schools

Sometimes success can mean not getting what you want. Not all foods previously served in schools will be able to be reformulated to meet the new standards—and Jahnke says that’s just fine! “Some things just aren’t going to work so we have to come up with a new item, which is fine. Introducing kids to new foods is great.”

She has been able to introduce her students to many new fruits and vegetables through the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program. In fact, Jahnke recently spoke with the parent of a student in one of Topeka Public Schools that participates in the program while waiting in line at the grocery store. “The lady said, “My kids have really started liking fruits and vegetables.” Then she said that she had been able to try some of the fruits and vegetables too!”

Jahnke has high hopes for the lasting impact of the changes her schools have made. “I think that if we continue to look at new items and be innovative and listen to the kids and monitor what they choose, I think we’ll have success for a long time,” she said.

Learn more about Jahnke’s work to improve Topeka Public Schools.

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