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Schools make cafeteria connections

Districts engage parents with kitchen tours and social media to build meal appeal
  • Fruits and vegetables: A Saint Paul Public Schools student finds her breakfast quite tasty—and parents know it’s healthy, too. The district started to also incorporate more ethnic foods on menus.
  •  At Hillsborough County School District, family members show up for monthly tours of school kitchens.
  • The following three photos show meals for students at Chandler USD in Arizona.

In Florida, parents flock to after-hours tours of the Hillsborough County Public Schools’ kitchens.

In Arizona, the Facebook page dedicated to the food and nutrition department of the Chandler Unified School District has over 58,000 followers—more than the school system’s total enrollment.

And all across the country, parents and students use smartphones to access school menus, check the nutritional content of individual dishes, and rate items for tastiness.

More than five years after Congress overhauled child nutrition standards—requiring schools to serve food with fewer calories, less salt and fat, and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains—districts are using social media, technology tools and old-fashioned personal outreach to connect with parents.

The goal: persuading them that today’s school meals are nothing like the sometimes unhealthy foods they remember from their own childhoods.

“It’s just a matter of really trying to encourage people to give school meals a second look,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association.

“People may take a look at a school menu and say, ‘Oh, they’ve got Pizza Friday,’ but what they don’t know is that the pizza is on a whole-grain crust, and it’s made with low-fat cheese and reduced-sodium sauce, and it’s served with a side of vegetables and fruit and comes with low-fat milk.”

See the food on social media

Such healthful components are mandated under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which went into effect in 2012 and is currently up for reauthorization.

Critics predicted the new requirements would cost districts money as students turned up their noses at healthier school food. Indeed, districts lost more than 1 million paying customers between 2011 and 2015, even while participation in free meal programs rose.

Winning back the customers is a top priority for nutrition programs, most of which operate without financial subsidies from their districts. And nutrition directors say a first step is joining the conversations parents are already having about school food.

“School lunch is so vilified, we’ve got to tell our story,” says Wesley Delbridge, director of food and nutrition for Phoenix-area Chandler Unified, which enrolls 41,000 students. “If you convert a couple of parents, and they have two or three kids in your program, and they end up eating all the way through sixth grade—that’s money in the bank.”

To increase participation, or at least improve parents’ perceptions of school food programs, nutrition departments now turn to a variety of tools, both high-tech and old-fashioned. Commercial and custom-made apps display photos of each day’s menu items; list calorie counts, fat content, allergens and other nutrition information; and allow students to rate dishes on a five-star scale.

Programs are turning to free social-media sites, as well. The nutrition department in Minneapolis Public Schools tweets two or three times a day, sharing pictures of food, announcing taste tests and restaurant partnerships, or thanking local farmers who supply the district, says Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and nutrition services.

Delbridge, whose Facebook page at Chandler USD has garnered more “likes” than he has students, will help run two social media boot camps at the School Nutrition Association’s national conference in July.

Through social media, he’s solicited feedback on the district’s decision to stop serving peanut butter (many parents wanted it back) and encouraged students to locate an additive-free replacement for the beloved but unhealthy corndog (a healthier version returns next year).

“Today’s parents are millennials,” Delbridge says. “A lot of these people are in their 20s or early 30s, and this is the way they communicate.”

Delbridge credits social media outreach with increasing the district’s participation rate by 4 percent, even as national numbers were falling. One father who posted persistently critical comments on the district’s Facebook page changed his mind after Delbridge contacted him, discussed federal regulations and budgeting, and gave him a tour of the kitchens.

“The next day he posted this great comment calling us a ‘nutrition think tank,’” Delbridge says. “We really work on getting those detractors to be fans.”

The one-time critic’s children now eat lunch at school a couple of days per week.

‘More than pizza and chicken’

But tech tools can’t completely replace old-fashioned person-to-person contact. In Minnesota’s Saint Paul Public Schools, it took a meeting with parents from a Burmese ethnic group to explain why students at one elementary school disliked the food choices so much that they were skipping meals.

In response, the district added a chicken teriyaki-and-rice dish to the breakfast menu. The item was such a hit—daily meal counts rose by 100, says Stacy Koppen, director of nutrition services—that it’s being rolled out in five additional schools this year.

In the 200,0000-student Hillsborough County district, which includes Tampa, the every-other-month “Behind the Lunch Counter” program draws up to 200 people to after-hours tours of school kitchens. Parents munch on appetizers while waiting their turn to view cook stations, coolers and cash-collection systems, says Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough’s general manager of student nutrition services.

Each May, the district holds a Fresh Flavors Food Show, where students and parents sample and vote on proposed dishes, from chicken broccoli Alfredo to pork-and-sweet-potato nachos. The point is to get parents to know what they are doing. “Our meal program is so much more than pizza and chicken,” says Harrison.

In Detroit Public Schools—where all 62,500 public and charter school students receive free meals—marketing takes a back seat to forging personal connections through conversation, says Betti Wiggins, executive director of the district’s nutrition office. Wiggins has reassured parents the “moldy apple” their children described was really a fuzzy kiwi. And she has explained that macaroni and cheese is not a side dish but a protein that can stand on its own.

“That’s how my engagement happens—the personal impact,” Wiggins says. “There’s a bond of trust between the parent and the school lunch program.”

Healthy eating starts at home

Engaging with parents on school nutrition issues can mean facing their frustrations. Bettina Elias Siegel, a Houston food advocate, began paying attention to Houston ISD’s food six years ago, when the menu included chicken-fried steak with gravy, Frito pie and chocolate milk.

“I could feel nothing but anger and dismay and a complete lack of understanding as to how anyone who purported to care about kids could be serving this food,” says Siegel.

Empathy tempered her outrage once she learned about the range of pressures faced by school nutrition departments. Among those pressures are stringent federal nutrition requirements that limit flexibility, and meal reimbursement rates that leave districts with an average of $1.25 per student to spend on food.

Siegel joined the committee that advises her district’s food program, and on her blog, The Lunch Tray, she urges parents to educate themselves about such issues before marching into district offices seeking change and explanations.

“A lot of these school food people are working so hard, and their intention is to get healthy meals to these kids,” says JoAnne Hammermaster, who co-founded Real Food for Kids, a nonprofit that successfully lobbied Houston ISD to use more fresh ingredients and reduce processed foods.

“But they have cost implications, they have logistical issues, it’s political. If you don’t work together, those changes are not going to be sustainable.”

And working with districts to market healthier meals to students requires more than lip service from parents: Students are more likely to eat their vegetables at school if they also eat them at home.

“We put so much pressure on schools to change, but if kids on the other side of the serving line are primed to want junk food, you have a mismatch there,” says Siegel, the Houston blogger. “It is asking a lot from schools to change kids’ habits.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer in New Jersey.