Fresh, Nutritious Meals Increase Participation
Aside from home, kids spend most of their time at school where they consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories.
Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to encourage schools to serve nutritious foods and drinks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs and for food and drinks sold to students in snack bars, vending machines, and à la carte cafeteria lines. As a result, more schools across America now offer healthier snacks and beverages, contributing to students’ wellbeing and academic success.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, and we’ve found that thousands of schools, such as Wayne County School District in Monticello, Kentucky, are successfully implementing the standards.
Healthy changes that work
For the past five years, Wayne County School District has prioritized improving the nutritional quality of school meals for students, 88 percent of whom participate in the school lunch program and 78 percent of whom participate in breakfast. “Being proactive helped us move ahead smoothly with the national school meals standards that are now required,” said Director of Food Service Karen Gibson.
"It's worth every penny. We're investing in our children's health and future."
- Karen Gibson, Director of Food Service
In 2011, results from a student-led survey inspired Gibson to launch grab-and-go boxed salads, which were a hit among students. During the 2014-2015 school year, at the request of students, schools added fresh salad bars in place of the boxed salads. The transition has yielded increased vegetable consumption, while reducing waste by removing the plastic boxes—a win-win!
Wayne County High School worked with the local Future Farmers of America chapter to start an onsite garden. From August through November, the cafeteria now serves a variety of local, fresh produce including tomatoes, cantaloupe, green and red sweet peppers, broccoli, eggplant, cucumbers and cabbage. “For students to have a positive experience tasting vegetables or fruits, we need them to be the best possible quality,” said Gibson. “It’s worth every penny. We’re investing in our children’s health and future.”
Meeting the nutrition standards is all about balance and variety. Cafeteria managers must weigh student preferences, operations, product availability, and resources. To offset the reduction in French fries, Wayne County school cafeterias added several new vegetable options including baked potatoes to their menus. Whole grain breads are now the norm. Hiring a menu planner has helped ensure that menu offerings are compliant with national standards while also remaining popular with students.
The district is working to improve communication about their efforts with the community. Last year, they revamped the district website to provide access to menus, wellness policies, nutrient analysis, regulations and nutrition education materials. And starting in March 2015, a new app called Nutrislice will share school menus, food descriptions and nutritional facts with parents and students from the convenience of their smart phones and tablets.
Investments in nutrition yield big returns
Gibson believes partnering with the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program has contributed to the district’s success. “We’ve used the training materials for our staff and the Product Calculator for Smart Snacks to make sure our items are compliant. Having the Alliance’s Framework really helps us as a district—the criteria give us stamina as we work to improve nutritional integrity in our programs.”
Gibson is also proud of the involvement her students have had with the school’s efforts. A few years ago, high school students met with Food Service Manger Michelle Lowe to discuss low-cost ways to improve the look and feel of the cafeteria. “When they made the lines diagonal, it made it look less institutional and more like a restaurant,” said Gibson. “It even seems like there is more room, things flow a little better, and student wait time decreased.”
All of these efforts have contributed to the program’s continued growth. During the 2013-2014 school year, participation increased by 7 percent at breakfast and 2 percent at lunch. Gibson attributes some of that growth to alternative breakfast offerings including breakfast in the classroom and second chance breakfast.