Reinventing school food with passing gear philanthropy

Kids won’t eat healthy cafeteria food.

Cafeteria workers can only open boxes and reheat chicken nuggets. They’ll never learn how to cook.

School cafeterias can’t afford to serve healthy or local food.

Students don’t think school lunch is cool.

When the Piedmont Health Foundation teamed up with Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services back in 2010 to consider how to put a better product on the school lunch tray, these were the objections we heard in the community. Naysayers who scorned the typical school lunch at that time – hot dogs, processed chicken products, canned beans and the like – tended to point the finger at the schools as if they were stubborn or lazy or ignorant of children’s health needs to not offer scratch-made entrees, whole grains, and locally sourced produce and proteins every day.

Food service personnel had great ideas of what they could offer the district’s more than 76,000 students. But they needed technical resources, financial support, and culture change in schools to get them there.

This is where passing gear philanthropy came in.

Institutions like school districts have strict mandates to meet with finite resources, and in this environment it can be challenging to transition current practices to a new model, no matter how innovative or promising.  Philanthropic foundations, on the other hand, are free from the regulations of government, the pressures of fundraising, and the demands of public opinion, and can thus apply their assets to help more constrained institutions make a promising transition, described by Ford Foundation staff Paul Ylvisaker as philanthropy acting as society’s “passing gear.”

In 2011 and 2012, Piedmont Health Foundation provided seed funding for a culinary training program for Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services staff to learn to cook healthier lunches. They did, indeed, need to learn how to trade their box cutters and microwaves for chefs’ knives and sauté pans, which they did at a week-long culinary training institute at our local Greenville Technical College.

In 2013, we connected them to bigger funding sources, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of South Carolina, Greenville Women Giving, and others. We supported LiveWell Greenville in visiting countless PTAs, encouraging them to offer taste tests to kids and promos to teachers and parents. In 2014, we gave funding for development of a communications plan for them to toot their own horn on social media and elsewhere, promoting the innovation that was becoming commonplace in the cafeteria.  We did everything we could to advocate and cheer for Greenville County Schools as they rolled out exciting plans for making school lunch healthy, delicious, and – yes – financially sound.

It’s now been seven years since we first asked Greenville County Schools, “How can we help?”  What’s most exciting is that our help is no longer needed.  Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services has made the transition in every way, with talented chefs in every school cafeteria, parents, students, and employees who embrace and celebrate the diverse and unique offerings on the menus each day, local farmers who are proud to see their blackberries, apples, beef, and more feeding thousands of their neighbors’ kids, and industry partners who are eager to try the next new thing in Greenville County knowing that all eyes are on Food and Nutrition Services Director Joe Urban and his incredible team of professionals.

We want to give Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services a giant shout out for being a national model for how school food can and should be done. And while we are proud to say we were part of it early on, today’s innovations like food trucks for families in low income neighborhoods, locally sourced humanely-raised Brasstown Beef, seafood on the menu every week (earning a mention in the New York Times), unusual items like alligator creole (yes! and the kids are eating it!)…and on and on…that’s ALL because of the passionate team at Greenville County Schools. If you want more joy in your Facebook feed, follow them today! Read recent coverage on their new menus. And please, go have lunch at any of Greenville County’s 101 schools and special centers.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Special thanks to former Greenville County Schools Superintendent Dr. Phinnize Fisher for supporting a pilot of the culinary school program at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School and to current Superintendent Dr. Burke Royster for supporting its expansion to all schools and centers, and congratulations to former and current Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services staff for their hard work and perseverance in championing the reinvention of school food.

Previously on this topic: There is Hummus Among Us

There is hummus among us

Sterling School was one of ten schools to try Greenville County Schools’ new culinary program in its cafeterias in 2013, featuring scratch-cooked items, vegetarian entrees, and salad bars each day.

Originally posted in September 2013

Yesterday, I asked my third grade son, who buys his meal in the cafeteria at Sterling School every day, what he chose to eat for lunch.

“I got the hummus plate,” he replied.

“The hummus plate?” I asked, surprised.  “How was it?”

He shrugged.  “It was pretty good.”

I don’t want to misrepresent my son as someone with a wildly adventurous palate.  This is a kid who begs me to purchase the bright variety packs of cereals when we go to the grocery store and who is easily wooed by a fast food joint based on what movie character is hawking it on Nickelodeon.  I do believe he’s less picky than most children; however, he will let me know when “too many things are touching” in a casserole I’ve made or if nose-plugging is necessary for vegetables that are “weird.”

So the fact that he will eat a hummus plate without fanfare (as well as carrot-ginger soup, veggie quesadillas, and enchilada pie) is a big victory for me.

And thousands of parents in Greenville County’s 51 elementary schools are having the same victories each day.

It’s been widely reported that Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services has developed Culinary Creations menus in its elementary cafeterias.  Funded by the Piedmont Health Foundation, along with Blue Cross Blue Shield of SC, Greenville Women Giving, and others, Greenville County Schools’ food service workers participated in culinary training at Greenville Tech’s Culinary Institute of the Carolinas.  This has enabled them to offer fresh salads, scratch made soups, whole grains, local produce, and vegetarian entrees each and every day.  And thanks to the culinary training, the food is attractively presented and nicely seasoned.

Critics have speculated that students just won’t eat the healthier menu items, suggesting that kids like only corn dogs and chicken nuggets.  However, sales show that many students have more adventurous taste preferences than grownups give them credit for.  In fact, at most schools, sales have held steady or increased with the new Culinary Creations items.

A blog by Patrick Mustain on ScientificAmerican.com describes both the research and health imperatives behind testing assumptions about what kids will and won’t eat (It Is Not True that Kids Won’t Eat Healthy Food: Why the New USDA School Guidelines Are  Very Necessary).  Mustian writes, “A number of studies show that neophobia (the fear of trying new foods) can be unlearned through exposure to a variety of novel foods, even just visual exposure. However, in the current food environment, many children are offered, or have an option to seek out, hyper-palatable, energy dense, nutritionally lacking foods. This lack of exposure to a variety of novel foods keeps their level of pickiness high. Picky eating is (generally) not an inherent trait, they are simply responding naturally to an environment that has never challenged their palate.”

To his point, it is noteworthy that some of the strongest lunchroom participation trends in Greenville County are in those schools with the highest Free and Reduced lunch rates.  These are the students who eat school lunch because their families are less able to afford sending a lunch packed at home.  In other words, they have no choice other than to eat whatever is served at school, be it a corn dog or, as is the case in Greenville County, a veggie burger and salad.  And by and large, the students are eating these healthy foods.  Cafeterias are finding that, across the district, there is not more food waste than before the menu changes were implemented (in other words, kids have always thrown away some of their lunch because they are full, spent too much time talking to friends to eat, or they just don’t want a particular item on the tray).

This is significant – it means that those children who aren’t given the opportunity to be picky (“my daughter doesn’t like what’s on the menu today, so I’m going to pack her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chips”) will find things that they can, in fact, eat.  And when those things are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins – especially for kids who are from food-poor homes – it’s a big deal from a public health perspective.

Do these kids love everything they try?  No.  I wish my son had loved the school hummus plate, as I do, and perhaps he won’t order it again.  But maybe he will give it another chance.  Because his school has been a few steps ahead of the new USDA guidelines, he’ll be able to test this and lots of other tasty, healthy foods the whole school year long.  I just need to stay out of the way and let him do it.