When most people look back at their experience in a public school cafeteria the memories are rarely positive.
Whether it was discolored meats, mushy casseroles, or just the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, the lunchroom experience always seems to leave something to be desired.
At Cedar Bluffs Public Schools, Food Service Director Jennifer Groves, with help from a Team Nutrition Smarter Lunchroom grant, is trying to change that perception and provide healthy and appetizing meals to the nearly 400 students who attend the school district.
Along with a $1,000 Team Nutrition Smarter Lunchroom grant that allowed the school to add a second salad bar to offer students more fresh fruits and vegetables, Groves has also put in a vending machine that dispenses milk instead of soda, and a sharing table that cuts down on food waste and allows students access to more food.
“Last year when we were just offering one salad bar cart I felt like we were really limited to what we can offer the students,” Groves said. “Having two of them now we are able to offer a bigger variety of fruits and vegetables. The students are so much more attracted to it, every day they walk by and are looking and wondering what we are going to put out.”
Team Nutrition is an initiative of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to support the Child Nutrition Programs through training and technical assistance for foodservice, nutrition education for children and their caregivers, and school and community support for healthy eating and physical activity.
Team Nutrition relies on strategies implemented by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement which is dedicated to providing schools with the knowledge, motivation, and resources needed to build a lunchroom environment that makes healthy food choices the easy choice.
Part of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is a scorecard that contains 60 simple, no-cost or low-cost strategies that lunchrooms can use to increase participation, improve consumption of healthy food, and reduce food waste. The strategies are based on research from the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and partners.
“It just gives different ideas of how to improve the atmosphere of the cafeteria, increase participation and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables,” Beth Nacke, UNL Extension Team Nutrition Grant Coordinator, said. “What we do is go into a school and do a scorecard with them and go through the cafeteria and look at things that are going on currently and it just helps the schools highlight what they are doing well, and identify areas where they might want to make improvements.”
After completing the scorecard at Cedar Bluffs last spring, Nacke and Groves decided to focus on the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at the school and decided that adding a second salad bar would be worthwhile.
Along with being able to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables, the second salad bar cart also allowed Groves to provide more homemade options.
“When we had the first salad bar cart we stuck to the requirements, you have to have your dark greens and reds out there so it limited space to where we want to offer so much more but we had to have certain things on the cart at all times,” Groves said. “Having that second cart we can do things like fruit salads and pastas, a lot more homemade stuff. So it is nice to be able to provide all of the requirements and the extra stuff that we make right here.”
The new salad bar also allows Groves to offer more options that add to the main menu for the day.
“If we are serving tacos we can have a really nice taco bar, so what we tried to do is make the salad bar fit in with the meal that we are having for the day,” she said.
Another improvement Groves has made to the cafeteria is the addition of a milk vending machine.
“We offer the school milk cartons during breakfast and lunch, but in between meals and after lunch kids still want milk,” Groves said. “The coaches do a great job of encouraging kids to drink milk rather than pop or juice, so I thought how can we offer these kids milk without taking from our lunch milk.”
That idea led to a new milk vending machine that was put into the cafeteria at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The vending machine allows students to purchase pints of chocolate, strawberry, and regular milk for $1.50 a piece, instead of buying soda or juice.
“We sell milk like crazy,” Groves said. “I didn’t think kids were going to be excited about it, but I have students in kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade that expressed how much they like it. It is a good seller and it promotes good health, so for me it is rewarding when I see students walking around with a milk bottle in their hand.”
The cafeteria also features a sharing table where kids can leave food and drink items they are not going to eat, but are required to take as part of their reimbursable meals, for other students to enjoy.
“If you are not going to eat your apple or drink your milk, other students can then come up and take that food without having an additional charge,” Groves said. “We have a container and a note on the wall that says it is the sharing table, and it is nice to see that fill up, rather than it be in the trash.”
For Groves, and Nacke the main goal is to provide as many healthy, delicious options as possible to help change a lot of the negative perceptions that go along with school lunches.
“The more we can get the kids to buy into what is happening in the cafeteria the better,” Nacke said. “For them to know that she cares and the meal is something she is proud of and would eat herself, then we can change that perception so when other people say school lunch is terrible, the students can say sorry you have that experience but it’s not like that at my school.”