By Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS
School Nutrition Association President and Supervisor of School Nutrition Services for Loudoun County Public Schools, Va.
Dr. Domokos-Bays (right) joins kindergarten students at Loudoun County’s Fredrick Douglass Elementary in harvesting lettuce from their school garden. The School Nutrition Services team prepared the lettuce into salads for their classroom. (Photo credit: Rick Brady)
School nutrition professionals have always been passionate about serving students healthy meals that contribute to academic success. Now that federal nutrition standards require every school meal to include larger portions of fruits and vegetables, we are utilizing more creative methods to encourage students to eat and enjoy these nutritious choices. As president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), I've been thrilled to witness farm to school initiatives taking root in school cafeterias nationwide as part of this ongoing effort to help students adopt healthier lifestyles.
School nutrition professionals have embraced farm to school programs as an effective way to source more farm fresh, local produce and to get kids to try these choices by teaching them about the healthy foods grown in their communities. A recent SNA survey of nearly 1,000 school meal program operators revealed that 57% of school districts offer locally sourced fruits and vegetables with school meals - up from 52% just two years ago. Meanwhile, nearly 50% of respondents have implemented farm to school initiatives to promote healthier choices in the cafeteria, up from 37.5% in the 2014 survey. School nutrition professionals also reported widespread use of student taste tests, chef partnerships, and salad or produce bars – all effective methods for increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables.
During National School Lunch Week (October 10-14), schools nationwide will showcase these ongoing efforts. At Loudoun County Virginia’s Kenneth Colbert Elementary, students will have the chance to meet Ellen Polishuk, a farmer from nearby Potomac Vegetable Farms. Ellen will autograph her farmer trading cards for students as they enjoy their school lunches. Our school nutrition department worked with the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development to design twelve different farmer trading cards, which were released on the opening day of baseball season – also declared the first day of growing season! The cards have offered a fun way to teach students about the people who grow the local produce served in the cafeteria.
These cards have also helped to get kids excited about working and learning in Loudoun County’s school gardens. Local farmers are key partners in this effort too - Wegmeyer Farms in Hamilton, Virginia generously donated over 400 strawberry plants to our gardens this year, allowing students in 17 schools to learn outdoors with their teachers in the process of garden planting, tending and harvesting. The School Nutrition Services Team did our part to continue the learning in the cafeteria by hosting a “Taste it Thursday” strawberry taste test with students.
As a parent and a dietitian, I know kids sometimes need to try a new fruit or vegetable many times before they decide they like it, and that’s why partnerships between school nutrition professionals, farmers, teachers and parents are so important. Working together through farm to school initiatives, school garden projects, taste tests and nutrition education programs, we can all help promote life-long healthy eating habits for children.