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