FSD talks with the USDA’s Janey Thornton about the state of school foodservice programs

Thornton speaks about the HealthierUS School Challenge, Chefs Move to Schools and the preception of child nutrition programs.

Janey Thornton (top middle) joins in a
Chefs Move to Schools celebration at Orange County
Schools.

FSD talked with Dr. Janey Thornton, USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, about the HealthierUS School Challenge and Chefs Move to Schools to find out what the undersecretary has learned during her past two years on the job.

FSD: How many schools are currently certified at any level of the HealthierUS School Challenge?

Thornton: We have currently certified over 1,000, but we probably have over 1,500 or more that have met it at some time or another, but you have to certify every four years (it used to be two). Many districts once they’ve achieved it, they aren’t going to go through it again.

FSD: I’ve heard the process is rather cumbersome. Where is the first place a school should start to become certified?

Thornton: We have worked hard in the last year, so it’s not anywhere near as cumbersome as it used to be, but some still don’t realize that we have changed some of the processes. The first thing a school district would have to do is to plan menus that meet the new criteria. It is very similar to the recommendations to the new meal pattern, so that is another real positive thing for schools because once they meet that new meal pattern they will be good to go pretty much when the new regulation is implemented. They also have to have physical activity in the school and depending on the level of certification it varies on the amount of physical activity that is needed and whether it needs to be organized by a physical education teacher under their auspices or be organized by a PE teacher and carried out by a local director. Those are two big areas. Of course they have to have wellness plan. They have to have nutrition education being taught to kids. And they have to meet a certain percent of participation in meals. It doesn’t do any good to have great meals if nobody is eating them.

FSD: What is your goal for the number of schools to become certified?

Thornton: We want 1,250 certified individual schools by June 30 to meet our commitment to the first lady and our Let’s Move! campaign promise. It’s a pretty stringent certification process. Often someone may put in paperwork thinking they have reached gold or gold with distinction and when all of the paperwork is checked they’ve missed something and they may only qualify for silver or bronze. We encourage people to participate at whatever level. That leaves them room to grow. We want to see constant improvement.

FSD: It seems like a lot of the new USDA programs like the HealthierUS School Challenge are working hard to get positive stories about child nutrition in the press.

Thornton: We have a lot of good stories to tell. I think it’s very frustrating, and I speak from past experience, when you operate school nutrition programs that you know are great programs where the kids are truly benefiting and learning to eat and all you see in the news are things that are negative. What we think is a more positive approach to change is to point out to districts and schools what a good program looks like. When a school nutrition director or manager reads about a neighboring schools and sees the recognition they get, it’s a much more positive way to say, “I can do that too.” Parents love to read about positive things happening in their child’s school, much more so than negative.

FSD: In the past couple of years you’ve visited many school districts. What are some of the most innovative programs you’ve seen?

Thornton: One really great innovative practice I have seen in a number of schools is so much more partnering and not putting all of the responsibility of teaching children to be healthy on the school level. There are communities working with schools to say we all have a role to play. The schools look to the community and the community looks to the school to get walking trails, to get more physical activity, to improve the quality and the nutritional value not just of foods served at school but also at sporting events and places where kids go and play outside of school. I have seen children who have marched down to city hall and made a commitment to the mayor and town council that they are pledging to lead healthier lives. They have many kinds of activities going on in their school to carry out this pledge that as a student body they have made. I have seen changes in menus, that as a mom at home I might not recognize. A chocolate chip cookie, I’ll use that as an example. I may think that that is terribly unhealthy, but I was at a school where over half the fat in that cookie had been replaced with applesauce and they had also added oatmeal to the cookie. It was very moist and it was cut in very small, appropriate sizes, and the kids loved it. It was a healthy version for an occasional treat. I have seen other parts of the school now becoming much more engaged in recognizing the importance of good nutrition for kids. I have seen principals finally understanding how important it is to have breakfast for kids to do their best in the classroom. We’re seeing a whole lot more breakfast after the bell concepts. It’s so much bigger than just the cafeteria or the school. We all can support each other and praise those good things that are happening.

FSD: What have you guys learned from the Chefs Move to Schools program?

Thornton: One of the things that I think we have really learned from the Chefs Move to School program, kind of a combination of that program and the fresh fruit and vegetable program that we have in schools, is that often you hear over and over that kids won’t eat fruits and vegetables. We are finding that often kids don’t eat fruits and vegetables not because they don’t like them, but because they have no idea what they are because they have never seen them before. It’s been very interesting to us through our Chefs Move to School program that when an important gentleman or woman comes in all dressed in their chef coat talking about fruits and vegetables and prepares some for the kids in their classroom and it’s like, oh, my gosh the kids like it and they eat it. Time and time again we are hearing reports from the directors and managers in the school programs, the next time that fruit or vegetable is served how many more children are consuming it. I’ve also heard reports from directors that local grocery stores are reporting that when they try these new fruits or vegetables in school whether that is in the cafeteria or in chef’s demonstrations, they can tell such a difference on the weekend. When the parents go to the store and those kids are with them, those items are increased in purchases.

Because adults don’t eat as much in the cafeterias, kids don’t have anybody to model anymore. One of the good things I’ve seen as chefs are invited to cafeterias is that they are eating with the kids and modeling good practices. We’re seeing chefs going in and doing some assistance with our cafeteria employees on seasoning, using knives or some of the chefs’ techniques that perhaps some of our cafeteria employees were lacking. Amazingly enough in talking to a number of these chefs, I think they are learning some things from our cafeteria folks as well. We are really pushing to reduce sodium in our school meals and I think chefs are becoming more aware of the importance of also needing to do that in their recipes. Unless we approach this from a broader perspective than just schools, the changes we make in schools will not have anywhere near the impact than they could have otherwise. I think chefs have been shocked to see what a small, small amount of money that these schools have to spend on food. But they are helping some of the cafeteria staff to perhaps better utilize some of the foods that they have. I think we are also gaining a whole new advocacy group among our chef partners that are speaking out for schools and saying this is a lot harder than we thought or this is a phenomenal job and you can’t necessarily put everybody under the same umbrella. They are pointing out the good things that some of these schools are doing.