VBSD strives to make eating nutritious and fun for students

Sunday, October 22, 2017 11:18 pm
VBSD strives to make eating nutritious and fun for students

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Eating in the cafeteria is better than ever in the Van Buren School District. With a focus on making food nutritious, convenient, and fun, District leaders are helping kindergartners to seniors get the fuel they need for a full day of learning.

Offer vs. serve
While many bring their own meals from home, a large percentage of VBSD’s nearly 6,000 students utilize the cafeteria for their lunch and breakfast each day. Feeding that many is no simple task, but the Child Nutrition Department strives to make eating at school a good experience for all. “The goal is to provide meals that kids will want to eat, so they will take advantage of the meals offered to them at school,” said VBSD Child Nutrition Assistant Director Tessa Clemmons.

One way of encouraging students to consume the foods they need is by giving them choices. VBSD employs an “offer vs. serve plan,” which empowers students to make nutritionally beneficial choices for themselves, while allowing them to explore their own preference. Options are comprised of five basic components, of which VBSD must offer a certain amount daily. “For example, we are required to offer at least a two-ounce prepared equivalent of a meat/meat alternate each day. This may measure up in the form of the ground beef in our crunchy tacos, a three-ounce portion of roasted pork or five chicken nuggets.” VBSD also features fresh fruit, leafy greens, and other colorful, nutrient-rich items on its menu, giving students both vitamins and variety.

Since implementing the “offer vs. serve” system, the vDistrict has seen a decrease in waste. “If kids can pick out what they want, they eat it,” said Child Nutrition Director Roy Kendrick. “More gets eaten and less winds up in the trashcan.”

After school snacks provide another opportunity to give students foods they need. More than 61% of VBSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which means access to healthy foods may be limited at home. “Thanks to a fresh fruit and vegetable grant, we have some schools that receive an extra snack each day,” shared Clemmons. Fruit bars are stocked with fun options such as Pepino melon, passion fruit, and dragon fruit. “We try to mix in the ‘crazy’ stuff with snacks like baby carrots or miniature apples that we know the kids will eat, but it is a ton of fun seeing them react to the different fruits we are able to bring in.” Teachers often tie in the fruit of the day into their curriculum, centering lessons around where the food comes from and other facts. “The kids get a kick out of that,” added Kendrick.

The department also partners with FoodCorps to maintain school gardens. Clemmons has found that as students learn more about what they eat, they are more willing to try new things. “The garden sponsors teach our kids about the origins of their food. We are able to prepare it and they are excited to eat something that they have learned about specifically.”

Food festivities
In addition to expanding options, District leaders are also trying to make meal time more festive, incorporating holiday fun into its menu. “On Halloween, we will be having meatballs and spaghetti with a twist,” shared Clemmons. Staff will use black icing to dye noodles purple and put black olives on the meatballs to make them look like eyes. “It is a normal and healthy meal for the students but the menu will read: Eyeballs and Spooghetti, Booo Broccoli, spooky salad, boney breadstick, poison apples, and trick or sweet treat.”

Last week, VBSD celebrated “National School Lunch Week.” The “Recipes for Success” themed initiative is designed to bring awareness to school nutrition and to increase overall participation. “When we have a featured week, our police and firefighters will often come serve lunch and hang out with our students,” noted Clemmons. “Our kids also really enjoy when our sports team and spirit squad members come and serve. They see a cheerleader, a dancer, a football player, or a band member from one of our upper schools coming to hang out with them and they can relate and see themselves striving to reach goals.”

Equipment updates & Cafeteria renovations
Behind the scenes, VBSD has invested in equipment designed to improve food preparation. New ovens, steamers, and coolers have been installed on various campuses. The department recently purchased a new freezer/cooling trailer, which enables to the District to buy and haul large quantities of food safely.

Up front, digital menu boards have been added at the upper-level campuses. Many lunchrooms have also received new check-in computers systems. “We are trying to get into the modern era,” said Kendrick. That same thought was behind the decision to offer free and reduced lunch applications online. This year, parents could complete the forms using their computer or smart phone.

One of the most notable transformations will soon take place at Van Buren High School. The campus cafeteria will undergo a major renovation, which will provide students more options and more efficient service. “We are hoping to create a college-type setting—something that is more modern looking and that will make it easier to get students through the lines,” explained Kendrick. The renovation will result in different stations, so that students can find exactly what they want for lunch that day. “We are looking at a Hamburger bar, a taco bar, a full salad bar, a Grilled station, our "classics" station, and a pizza station, just to name a few,” detailed Clemmons.

Prepackaged options will be offered for those needing to grab food and go. More check-out lines will also be added. Kendrick hopes that faster service and convenient options will encourage more students to eat in the cafeteria. “We have to feed a lot of kids in a short amount of time. Right now, some don’t want to waste their lunch going through the line, but we hope this will help that. Our goal is to go from feeding half the students, which we are currently, to feeding three-quarters or more.”

Another way Kendrick hopes to accomplish this goal is by offering appealing alternatives, including healthy fast food. VBHS has already experienced success with this venture, in serving Domino’s Pizza. Staff coordinate with the chain to provide slices that meet nutritional guidelines, with ingredients such as low fat cheese and low sodium sauce. “We saw about a 20-25% increase in participation that day,” noted Kendrick. The District hopes to expand that program by adding new businesses to its rotation.

VBSD’s Child Nutrition program is also going mobile. Administrators are in the process of acquiring a food truck which will be used to feed students year-round. The fully self-contained vehicle will be used during school hours to provide fun options such as grilled hamburgers to students in the upper grades. It will also help streamline VBSD’s summer meals program. The District currently offers breakfast and lunch at no charge to youth ages 18 and under at several sites throughout the city. Food is prepared at one school location and then distributed to the various sites. The addition of a mobile food truck will enable food to be prepared on-location and allow for the District to transport food to students in-need in more remote areas.