More than 75 people from 31 states attended a workshop hosted by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project to discuss how schools can meet and exceed school meal nutrition standards by overcoming budget constraints and finding the resources to update their kitchens and cafeterias. The Kitchen Infrastructure, Training, and Equipment in Schools Workshop, which took place in Chicago July 28-30, 2013, included insights of food service directors, school administrators, industry representatives, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and financiers.
Collaboration, entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, and creativity were cited as crucial components of a program's success in a time of budget tightening. School districts are thinking about school foods in a new way that places a priority on health, but they also need to find innovative financing strategies to pay for the equipment and infrastructure changes they need to put healthy foods on the lunch tray.
To be successful, the attendees decided that the first step is to make the business case for upgrades and improvements. Participants also emphasized the need for planning and evaluation. Successful districts created business plans that include near-term (to meet requirements and make relatively minor improvements) and long-term (to make more substantial improvements) financing and procurement strategies that are integrated over time. They also researched and evaluated options for obtaining equipment and/or upgrading infrastructure, such as leasing equipment, buying and selling used equipment, securing equipment donations, and getting price quotes from multiple sources.
In January 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, finalized its updated nutritional standards for school meals in keeping with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law No. 111-296), which reauthorized the school meal programs and placed an emphasis on the need to improve access to healthy foods in schools. As a result, schools are striving to serve meals within calorie ranges that include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy options. School districts without kitchens or with aging kitchens lack the basic infrastructure and tools necessary to prepare, serve, and store healthier foods. Although some federal funding opportunities have been made available in recent years, and some schools are pioneering creative avenues for securing these essential assets, many schools struggle to find the resources to bring kitchens and cafeterias in line with current needs.
The Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, or KSHF, a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, hosted the workshop to discuss how schools can overcome budget constraints and find the resources to update their kitchens and cafeterias to meet or exceed the nutrition standards for school meal programs. All students in schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, regardless of family income, have access to these meals. Children from low-income families are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The program receives federal funding and is subject to the rules set by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.
At the workshop, attendees—who included food service directors, school administrators, financiers, and representatives of industry, nonprofit organizations, and foundations—clarified the needs for kitchen equipment, infrastructure, and food service training and shared and developed strategies for addressing them.
Featured presentations during the workshop included the following:
Participants engaged in three facilitated small-group breakout sessions to discuss specific challenges and opportunities for addressing schools' needs.
Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, and Erik Olson, senior director of food programs for The Pew Charitable Trusts, welcomed participants and thanked them for attending the workshop. Donze Black explained the project's role of providing nonpartisan analysis and evidence-based recommendations to make sure that all foods and beverages sold in U.S. schools are safe and healthful. Specifically, the project is working to ensure that the USDA adopts science-based nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages served and sold in schools; that it develops and implements rigorous school food safety policies; and that schools have the resources they need to train cafeteria employees and replace outdated and broken kitchen equipment.
The project recently conducted a survey of school food authorities, or SFAs,* to identify their perceived needs in meeting the updated standards for the National School Lunch Program. (This survey is also known as the KITS study.) The survey results underscored a significant lack of resources available to schools to meet these standards. The primary purpose of the workshop, Donze Black explained, was to gain insights from a diverse group of stakeholders about the study's main findings and determine how best to help schools succeed in achieving the standards. She encouraged participants to share their perspectives and ideas throughout the workshop.
Maureen Spill, Ph.D., a senior associate with the project, provided an overview of the survey's methodology and key results. The survey was administered to SFAs in 50 states and the District of Columbia from August to December 2012 (the period when SFAs were asked to implement updated standards). Respondents were kept anonymous to alleviate any concerns about providing truthful answers. Questions focused primarily on readiness for and challenges to meeting updated requirements, adequacy of existing kitchen equipment and the need for new equipment, changes and upgrades in kitchen infrastructure, and staff training needs. Key findings were examined for statistically significant differences among SFA subgroups based on size, community type, region, and poverty level.
A more in-depth overview of the KITS study results was provided over the course of the workshop and is
* - A school food authority is the local administrative unit that operates the National School Breakfast and School Lunch Programs for one or more school districts.
Jessica Donze Black introduced Janey Thornton, Ph.D., USDA deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services. In this role, Thornton has been responsible for improving the health and well-being of Americans by expanding access to nutritious, affordable food and providing dietary guidance, nutrition policy coordination, and nutrition education across USDA's 15 nutrition assistance programs.
Thornton offered a historical overview of the school meal programs. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, authorizing the National School Lunch Program and providing a federally assisted meal program to students in need. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act, which established the School Breakfast Program and extended the reach of the existing program. Eventually, school meal programs expanded again to include after-school snack programs, supper programs, and summer meal programs. By providing access to free or reduced-price nutritionally balanced meals, these programs provide students with the nourishment needed for learning.
The standards for the school meal programs are periodically updated to reflect the latest nutrition guidelines. When the updated standards went into effect in 2012, negative media attention about portion sizes and students' acceptance of the new menus affected the reception of the standards in some regions. Thornton indicated that perceptions of the standards are improving with time as communities begin to understand the reasons for the updated standards. She also noted that efforts are underway to explain them to superintendents and school boards across the country, set expectations for school meal programs, and address and alleviate any concerns that may have been voiced by parents, students, or members of the community.
Thornton reported that school districts across the country have faced challenges in implementing the updated standards. Old or insufficient kitchen equipment, for example, has hindered schools' ability to meet them. Although the National School Lunch Program received $100 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and $25 million from fiscal 2010 appropriations, this funding, which is allocated through a competitive grants program, represents a fraction of what school districts need to upgrade their kitchen equipment and infrastructure and to adequately train staff. Thornton emphasized that developing strong relationships between school districts and members of the community is essential to meeting these challenges. She encouraged workshop participants to share ideas so that successes can be replicated and expanded across the country.
Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project survey results: Equipment and infrastructure
Spill continued the presentation of the KITS study results, shifting her focus to findings about the challenges of implementing the updated standards by the start of the 2012-13 school year. She then asked workshop participants whether these challenges continue to be an issue a year later:
Alyssondra Campaigne, of Engage Strategies, provided an overview of case studies to demonstrate the ways in which some school districts are meeting their kitchen equipment, infrastructure, and training needs.
First, she revealed the approaches that school districts commonly employ to finance equipment and infrastructure:
Next, she shared insights from school districts regarding the critical task of training food service staff at all levels. School districts indicated that training should be convenient, flexible, and professional. Curriculums should include lessons on how to prepare certain types of food, how to use each piece of kitchen equipment, and how to market the foods to students and parents. Partnering with local culinary institutes and chefs is one example of a strategy that can make training interesting and help empower and motivate food service personnel.
Campaigne concluded by noting that successful implementation of a school meal program requires establishment of leadership and a vision, a professional and motivated food service staff, and buy-in from stakeholders (students, parents, school staff, school boards, and taxpayers). She also acknowledged the importance of flexibility so that programs can be tested and improved along the way.
Next, a panel of four stakeholders offered insights and tips based on their efforts to address school kitchen equipment and infrastructure challenges.
Jennifer LeBarre, director of school nutrition for the Oakland (CA) Unified School District, reported that facilities were the district's biggest challenge in operating its school meals program, because meals are prepared at two central facilities and transported throughout the district. To demonstrate how better to meet the needs of the school meal program, the district hired a consultant to conduct a feasibility study. The study took three years, and the results were incorporated into the facilities master plan, which was then used to craft a bond measure. The bond measure was approved, providing $40 million to build a new central kitchen, as well as an urban farm and education complex designed to serve lower-income communities within the city. LeBarre said the bond measure was approved because the school district worked with members of the community, discussing the need for resources to help boost their children's long-term success with improved nutrition and the plans for how the funds will be used to accomplish these goals.
Teresa Carithers, associate dean of the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Mississippi, spoke about her work in evaluation of the Nutrition Integrity Statewide Program Assessment. This program is a partnership between the Bower Foundation and the Department of Education to improve students' health and nutrition by providing funds to help purchase combination oven steamers, known as “combi ovens,” in order to eliminate deep fat fryers in Mississippi schools. The Bower Foundation also provided support for development of a technical assistance document, which helped schools determine whether a combi oven was appropriate for their needs.
The program started as a small pilot and was evaluated along the way by the School of Applied Sciences. The evaluation revealed that the nutrition integrity project had a positive impact beyond the schools that participated in the pilot; once the benefits of combi ovens were explained and publicized, other schools wanted to follow suit, either through the program or by finding other creative ways to finance their purchases. When asked how schools paid for the ovens, Carithers noted that in addition to using the funds from the sale of the fryers, the grants appeared to be an effective catalyst to motivate many schools to find creative funding methods from local, state, and federal sources. Nutritional and economic benefits were also documented.
Jean Ronnei, director of school nutrition for the St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, said the school district purchased high-quality equipment in bulk to ensure that all designated equipment funds were used effectively when available. The district has achieved long-term efficiencies through conducting a needs assessment and distributing the equipment carefully over time to fulfill specific inadequacies in school kitchens as they emerge.
Jessica Shelly, food service director for the Cincinnati Public Schools, said that one of the district's goals was to increase participation in its school meals program, and that participation increased from 48 percent to 69 percent when a greater variety of food was offered as a part of the meal. When asked what they wanted most, students requested salad bars. The district approached several companies and nonprofit organizations for funding, and each school eventually got its own salad bar. Shelly reported that other districts in the area are considering similar approaches, and she encouraged workshop participants to be proactive about finding the resources they need, including asking for assistance.
Workshop participants met in four smaller groups to build on discussions about how school districts have strategized to upgrade their kitchen equipment and infrastructure. Participants pointed out that collaboration, entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, and creativity are major components of a program's success. More specifically, the following themes emerged from these discussions:
Through these discussions, participants brainstormed about specific strategies for cutting costs and increasing revenue to finance kitchen equipment and infrastructure upgrades, including the following:
Workshop participants joined new small groups to discuss additional ideas for creatively building on financing strategies for improving school kitchen infrastructure and equipment. These small groups reiterated the
They identified the types of information and support needed to carry out these actions, including training on how to develop, implement, and evaluate business plans and a central resource with information about finance strategies, available grants, success stories, and outreach plans. Participants also discussed the importance of reframing the school meal program as a vital component of a productive school day and not an interruption.
The following models emerged as possible approaches for leveraging resources and partnerships to improve and enhance school meal programs.
Jessica Donze Black used an interactive polling mechanism to collect workshop participants' feedback on a number of topics. Through this tool, attendees indicated that developing a business plan (which incorporates activities related to equipment, labor, and menu development) is the best way to empower school districts to build support for equipment procurement. Participants also revealed that they largely value entrepreneurial approaches to facilitate upgrades to school kitchen equipment and infrastructure. Innovation and creative thinking, many participants emphasized, is the key to success.
Spill presented the Kids' Safe and Healthful Food Project's KITS survey results on the challenges and opportunities associated with training. The survey asked about specific training areas for SFA directors and food service management teams, kitchen and cafeteria managers, and cooks and frontline servers to successfully operate school nutrition programs and implement the updated standards. The list included:
Spill asked how training needs might have changed from a year ago, when the survey was completed and schools were in the process of implementing the meal standards. Several participants indicated that although training needs still exist on meal pattern requirements and certification paperwork completion, they may be less prominent now that most schools have adapted to the updated standards. In particular, participants indicated that the lack of understanding of the requirements was probably tied to the timing and that fewer people would indicate that concern today. A few participants pointed to the need for training on the business plan development process, based on the discussions throughout the workshop thus far.
Next, a panel of four stakeholders offered insights and tips based on their efforts to address food service personnel training needs.
Andrew Nowak, project director for Slow Food Denver, a grassroots organization that promotes local, sustainable food, explained that his organization formed a partnership with the Food and Nutrition Services Department of the Denver Public Schools to help bring locally grown foods into schools. As part of the local procurement process, food service staff participated in training boot camps on scratch cooking. The training was well received by kitchen staff and managers.
Leo Lesh, retired executive director of food and nutrition services for Denver schools, reported that the district provided an intensive three-week scratch cooking training program for all food service personnel. The first week focused on cold food preparation, the second week on baking, and the third week on prep cooking. The training began with a core group of 120 employees over the summer in an effort to ensure that 30 schools across the district started the school year with personnel who had participated in the training. Participants were compensated for their time, a formal graduation was held, and members of the community were invited to taste the new food on the school menus. Although the school district originally planned to train the staff at all schools in the district within three years, the training was completed within 1½ years because sessions were conducted during the summer, on weekends, and in the evenings. Training was streamlined along the way to make it as efficient and useful as possible. Lesh reiterated the importance of ongoing education, making sure that the right people are recruited into
the programs first, and recruiting the right trainers—those who are respectful, collegial, creative, and fun.
Eileen Staples, director of school nutrition for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, spoke about the challenges of implementing hazard analysis and critical control points in more than 90 schools. She noted that creating specific training modules helps to keep trainings consistent; frequent trainings ensure that all employees eventually understand the material. Although challenges initially rose from not training all staff simultaneously, the decision to make training a requirement for advancement has proved to be wise. Staples emphasized that training programs are most successful if employees understand and support a program's vision and goals.
Sarah Lyman, senior program associate for the Empire Health Foundation, shared lessons learned from the foundation's partnership with six school districts in the state of Washington. The foundation supported several levels of training, first on building important culinary skills and knowledge of healthy food preparation, then on building employee morale and support for making significant changes to the school food environment. Other training focused on topics such as cost savings, communications skills, production efficiency, and re-engineering recipes. A local chef served as an on-site adviser and helped schools create menus and address culinary challenges during the changeover process. Other steps taken to professionalize food service, such as purchasing chef hats and coats, helped motivate staff. She added that observing a reduction in student obesity rates has helped food service staff to see how their work can positively affect others.
Workshop participants again convened in small groups to discuss the challenges to securing training and possible solutions for increasing training opportunities.
The small groups' deliberations cited a number of challenges associated with training programs, including:
Although finding the resources for trainings can be challenging, several participants noted that it is often easier to get funding for training than for equipment and infrastructure upgrades. Other participants noted the importance of making every effort possible to hire staff with the appropriate competencies for food service operations. They also suggested that offering meaningful training opportunities can help reduce staff turnover. The groups shared and discussed ideas for boosting the success of training programs, including:
The small groups emphasized the need for training on how to develop, monitor, and evaluate business plans. As several participants pointed out, food service personnel at all levels need to understand how their actions can directly affect the food service budget. Teaching SFAs and food service personnel how to develop, implement, and evaluate a business plan could have a significant impact on the ways in which school kitchen equipment and infrastructure plans are developed and implemented in the future.
Jessica Donze Black thanked participants for their attendance and their enthusiastic and thoughtful participation in the workshop's discussions and activities. She commented on the group's elevated level of energy and camaraderie and encouraged participants to apply the lessons learned to their work and activities. Participants echoed Donze Black's sentiments and reminded one another to demonstrate leadership, be bold, and ask for assistance. Noting that schools are all in this together, several participants encouraged one another to continue collaborating in the future.
Donze Black concluded the workshop by noting that its proceedings and reports detailing the KITS study results would be published over the next six months and shared with stakeholders.