The following guest blog is part of the USDA Cafeteria Stories series, highlighting the efforts of hard working school nutrition professionals who are dedicated to making the healthy choice the easy choice at schools across the country. We thank them for sharing their stories!
By Sharon Foley, Food Service Director, Whitley County School District, Kentucky
During the more than two decades I’ve worked in schools, I’ve witnessed what we now know to be true: healthy kids learn better. But I’ll also let you in on a secret: Not only are healthy foods better for our children’s long-term outcomes, kids like healthy foods!
A decade ago, we began making changes to improve the nutritional quality of the food served in Whitley County schools in response to rising obesity rates among our children (Kentucky is currently the seventh most obese state in the U.S.). I’ve lived in Whitley County my whole life so I know a thing or two about what it takes to make changes here.
We started by swapping in whole grain versions of our breads and pastas and quickly found that staff and parents were often tougher critics than our students. To get everyone on board, we explained that the changes weren’t for them – that better nutrition makes kids healthier, and that’s why we’re making the changes. Now our students are eating whole grain pizza crust and spaghetti.
The USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards further helped us get everyone on the same page in my district. Before last summer when the standards went into effect, the changes only affected the lunchroom, but now we are sending a consistent message across the entire school campus.
I also learned that it’s important to remember that even though there are nine schools in my district to keep track of, we’re still serving individuals in the lunch line. One-size-fits-all solutions often don’t work. We found that by slicing fruits like oranges and apples and putting them in small cups, our students – especially our elementary students – are more likely to choose them. Some high school students gobble up raw broccoli while other prefer to have it cooked. Taking time to talk to students and learn about their preferences has been a big part of our success.
Joining the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program further encouraged us to increase servings of fruits and vegetables throughout the school day. Our stir fry vegetables with tangerine chicken is a great example of a new entree that boosts consumption and is also a hit with students! Last year, our elementary schools earned National Healthy Schools Bronze Awards through the Alliance – a milestone to celebrate how far we’ve come with support from national nutrition standards and organizations like the Alliance providing technical assistance.
Aside from home, schools are where children spend most of their time, making them the best places for us to expose our students to try new, healthy options. You’ll never know what a child might taste – and even learn to love – if you don’t make it available. Why not give it a try?