As the director of child nutrition services for the largest school district in St. Louis County, Carmen Fischer is tasked with keeping Rockwood’s more than 20,000 students happy and healthy—not an easy task. But Carmen has discovered the secret to doing just that: “Gradual is key!” she said.
First, Carmen set her sights on getting healthier options into schools. Already, they have made some substantial changes. Whole grain wheat buns are now served instead of white, all milk is skim, and leafy greens have replaced iceberg lettuce.
In the elementary schools, new menu items are added every year. Their regular offerings now include a turkey sandwich, whole grain pizza, yogurt and 100 percent fruit juice. The middle school used to sell chips and cookies a la carte. Now, they have moved to a rotating two-week cycle of healthier dessert-type snacks. And in the high school, salt packets were removed from the cafeteria.
“Kids were overwhelmed with choices, so we pulled those and now allow for one per day. For example, Monday may be whole grain Rice Krispie treats and Tuesdays might be a fruit snack,” she explained.
The district has also started purchasing local produce, including vegetables like spinach, zucchini, eggplant and squash, and fruits like watermelon and cantaloupe.
Along with the fresh veggies came items that kids weren’t quite used to. Carmen devised a strategy to get the kids to try new things. On “Taste Test Tuesdays,” cafeteria managers are provided a new recipe to test. If an item is well-received, it might even get a spot on the menu regularly.
“What we’re finding out is that they all like Taste Test Tuesdays, but might back off liking a particular item,” she said. “But we know it takes more than once, so we’re getting there.”
Recently, the star of the show was asparagus. “The staff steamed and roasted it, and the kids were really interested in it and enjoyed it,” Carmen said. “One of our managers introduced quinoa and farro, and made a quinoa dish with asparagus. We actually got compliments from the kids!”
Carmen also revamped the birthday party process in elementary schools. The first set of changes to the guidelines allowed parents to order approved (healthy) items off a menu that would be delivered to their child’s classroom. Now, the district is starting to encourage non-food celebrations, such as offering extra recess, lunch with a teacher or time to read a book—and each school offers something a little different.
“We did this gradually too, so there was really little pushback from parents,” she said.
But perhaps the most important change they’ve made is having recess before lunch in all 20 elementary schools.
“It started with elementary principals. There were already a few doing recess, so we had them speak to the others,” Carmen explained. “The superintendent was supportive too, so in 2005 we were able to expand to all elementary schools.”
Next on the agenda is an attempt to mix up the high school menu more often, and creating more seasonal-type items to keep up interest.
“We’ve had a 2 percent increase in high school reimbursable meal participation this year, which is pretty awesome considering the national trend for high school participation is going down,” Carmen said. “We’ve found that keeping the menu fresh and different and introducing new things helps keep participation up.”
She has some advice for others who want to mirror Rockwood’s success: “Introduce fruits and veggies early, so by the time they get to middle and high school they already like them.” Carmen said. And perhaps most importantly, “Don’t be afraid to try new things!”
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