In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. Dr. Janey Thornton, left, has been deputy undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services since 2009 and is a former school nutrition director at Hardin County Schools. She recently visited two Kentucky school districts to talk to staff and students about the federal nutrition changes.
Q: You were in Kentucky in August to meet with groups of superintendents and others in Owsley County and Covington. What were the overarching messages they gave you?
A: I think their biggest concern was that their district was going to be penalized during a review, and they would have to pay back money when they were really trying to do whatever it was, whether it was the new meal pattern, Smart Snacks in School or another new requirement. Our smart review system is new and as with anything new, people are afraid they are not going to do it right. So when the state did the review, in a few places, they might have been overly conscientious. We are saying, “This is a learning process for all of us and we need to work through all the challenges, and if there are things school districts have not done, they need to work on a corrective action plan rather than institute any penalties at this time.” I did go on to say that if there is no indication the school was trying to meet the requirements, then we would have to do penalties of some kind.
Q: How does Kentucky’s experience in implementing the new nutrition standards for school meals compare with other states?
A: Overall, I think our schools are doing a great job. Does that mean there is no room for improvement? No. But so many of our directors are leaders, so many had already started slowly going toward more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables. I contacted the food service director in Hardin County, where I came from, and asked if they were seeing a decrease (in participation). She said, “No, we have been doing this a long time. We didn’t see a decrease at all.”
I had heard that Harlan County was having a terrible time. When I talked to the director there, he said, “Yes, last fall, the kids were not receptive and were very negative. Then it dawned on me that I needed to engage them.” He got the kids to help develop menus, he took them to food shows, had them encourage other students to eat fruits and vegetables. I’m hearing this all over the country – when kids are engaged, when they feel it is their cafeteria, it makes a huge difference.
Q: From the standpoint of local food service directors, what have been the most difficult aspects of the changes?
A: If food service directors have gotten on board with changes, then I’d say the biggest challenge has been the negative media, because whether it is social media or written media, it has an impact on kids.
In some districts, introducing fruits and vegetables that kids have never seen has been a challenge. And when the cooks and managers are unfamiliar with the fruit or vegetable and they don’t prepare it at home, it is a learning curve for them.
Q: You said some of these schools have been very innovative as they introduce new foods?
A: Yes, here’s an example of something that we had not thought of. In some of our schools that have the fruit and vegetable program, our low-income school districts, when those kids are introduced to new fruits and vegetables in the classroom and are then offered those foods on the line, they know what they are. Other schools offer samples of new foods in soufflé cups. Some have high school kids talk to younger kids about fruits and vegetables and why it is important to try them. Others have worked with their County Extension Service to offer after-school programs.
There are a lot of things that can be done. Making portions smaller, sending recipes home to parents. Also, if you are a director or a manager on the serving line, your attitude makes such a difference. Imagine if a kid asks, “What is this?” and the cook behind the line frowns and says, “I have no idea.”
Q: Why does acceptance of new menus vary from district to district and from school to school?
A: It is often just kids not knowing what some of the foods are. Another reason has nothing to do with food. Directors will say, “I don’t think it is the food, I think it is that we are continuing to have to raise food prices.” In years gone by, as a director, you knew that for every nickel you raise your prices, your participation goes down 1 percent.
Q: Some school food-service directors say they are seeing more food waste as result of the changes. Is there greater waste?
A: Recent studies show there is not greater food waste than previously. But whatever food is wasted is too much. So directors might have to change how they are serving items. Maybe they don’t have to pre-portion items. A half-cup of peas is a lot of peas to a 5-year-old. We encourage them to offer a lot of choices. So maybe, instead, a child chooses a few peas and some broccoli and some apple slices. Overall, it will be a half-cup but not a half-cup of any one thing.
Q: What can districts do to reduce their costs in adhering to the new standards - particularly in the case of fresh produce, which seems to be a budget-buster?
A: That is where training is desperately needed in so many areas, not just in Kentucky. We have people in place who are performing tasks that are probably over what they are comfortable doing. So they may have not had much of a problem with budgets in the past because it was the way it was set up and always done. Many people think we are saying that food has to be fresh and locally procured. That is not right. It would be nice, but it can’t be done if it is out of your price limit.
But if you implement offer vs. serve, offer a variety of fruits and vegetables, buy in season, get input from the kids, use fresh when you can, work with students rather than at them, it is very doable.
Q: Some food service directors have said that they support the new requirements but believe they should have been phased in more slowly. Why weren’t they?
A: That is what their professional association, the School Nutrition Association, is saying. That being said, we have phased it in. We phased in whole grains, we phased in breakfast, and we phased in the amounts of foods kids have to take. We have listened to districts. There is a whole list of things that have been phased in and adjusted.
Q: They’ve also said the overall calorie count has left some students, particularly high schoolers, hungry, even if they eat everything. Is there a solution to this?
A: Our calorie count now is more than the recommended calorie count before this went into effect. We have worked with Mission Readiness [a nonpartisan national security organization of 450 retired admirals and generals] who have said, “We have to do something about how America eats. It is affecting (negatively) those who are trying to get into military.” They have said the calorie count is plenty – it is what our young recruits have in basic training.
What we are seeing is that the kids don’t eat the food. They say, “I don’t like it.” So they might be hungry, if, in fact they don’t eat the food offered to them. We have many schools that have unlimited fruits and vegetables, other than starchy vegetables, so kids can take more.
Q: Did federal officials anticipate there would be resistance - either from school personnel or kids - to these changes?
A: I expected there would be issues. I didn’t take into account the effects of social media or the reaction of some parents. I have had directors tell me they have had mothers who called and had a fit because their child didn’t have enough to eat. The director sent them the menu and invited them to come to school. The mother was shocked to see the quality and all the choices. Is that true everywhere? No, but it is a lot of places. I was shocked in Owsley County when I met with kids from nutrition advisory council. I was waiting for them to say they wanted larger portion sizes. You know what those kids said? They wanted a salad bar. Sometimes it is a very few people, but a few people with loudest voices, who cause the issue.
Q: In your travels across the country, have you picked up on other challenges with school meals?
A: Every food service director I talked to and even some of the principals agreed, there is not enough time for kids to eat lunch. The challenge is it takes longer to eat fresh fruit and vegetables than it does to eat processed food. I have seen kids walking to the tray return shoving food in their mouth. We don’t want to teach kids to inhale foods because that is part of our problem. When you eat so fast, you don’t realize when you are full. This is a challenge not just in Kentucky but nationwide.