Greenville County Schools: Fostering flavor exploration

Kelsey Nash, Digital Editor

Wahoo Tacos

Don’t underestimate the kids. At least that’s the philosophy Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services at Greenville County Schools, breathes into his operation. Today’s students are savvier and more sophisticated, and their tastes in food reflect that, he says. “They don’t always like [a new item],” he says, “but they’re willing to try it.”

Among the foods that students in his Greenville, S.C., district are game to taste: alligator gumbo, starfruit, pork belly tacos and meat from a whole-hog roast held at school. Urban says his team got a few “looks” when it came to the alligator, but the kids warmed up to it. Expanding their eating horizons boils down to the quality of the food and its presentation, he says.

“When people ask, ‘How do you get kids to eat more [produce]?’ the answer is simple,” says Urban, who’s in his fourth year as director. “You stop serving them crappy canned fruit and ruined, overcooked vegetables, and offer them a lot of variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.”

Learning with their taste buds

shrimp boil lunch plate

To introduce new foods to students, Urban’s department chooses one school per month to honor with an over-the-top lunch that ties into the curriculum, if possible. The hog roast was one such meal, borne from third-graders’ study of Carolina cooking. Urban partnered with two Southern chefs to host the barbecue and a low-country boil on school grounds, complete with shrimp and potatoes.

Another avenue for new items is the food truck his department debuted late last summer. While the truck’s primary aim is to provide additional sites for summer feeding, it’s been used throughout the year to deliver excitement, test offerings and reward students for reaching educational goals. “What we’ve found out is that kids will eat anything out of a food truck,” Urban says.

When planning, culinary staff start with their dream menu, then work backward to ensure it complies with regulations, says GCS Culinary Specialist Paula Wambeke. A point of pride for her is the district’s aim to not adulterate menu items or otherwise trick kids into healthy eating. “We really try our best to present food in its natural state, [in a way that’s] recognizable, and give it the proper name,” Wambeke says. “When [the students] are out in the world, they’ll know what they’re eating, and not smiley fries or something like that.”

Adding more seafood to the menu is a current goal. Next year, Urban aims to serve fish such as mahi mahi and Alaskan pollock once a week to elementary students, and about twice weekly to middle and high schoolers. As build-your-own options have been a big hit with the students, a ramen bar, burger bar and burrito bowl bar are also in the works.

Secrets to serving 'the greatest plate'

student eating pulled pork sandwich

Given the changes the foodservice department has made in the past few years, keeping its 750 employees engaged has been key to success. And for the most part, staff have bought into the department’s philosophy of serving largely fresh, scratch-made food, Urban says. “Once we trained them and reinvented our menus and really started serving food that we could be proud to serve, we noticed that there was a renewed sense of pride in the job for our operators and managers.”

Soliciting employee feedback is part of creating that connected workplace, as is recognizing staff accomplishments and letting them shine. “Our people know their work matters,” he says.

But it always comes back to the food, which Urban says is akin to offerings seen at local restaurants. Success, as he defines it, is “serving the greatest school food possible.” That’s only doable if all of the other boxes are checked, he notes—budgets, human resources tasks and managing operational costs, to name a few. Yet “putting the greatest plate in front of that kid every day—80,000 times a day—that’s success for us.”

Greenville County Schools at a glance

Bryson Middle School rib lunch plate

Location: Greenville, S.C.

Number of students in the district: 76,951

Number of schools in the district (including centers): 101

Meals served daily: 80,000

Expanded free universal breakfast in 2016-17

Debuted a food truck to bolster summer feeding and host pop-ups throughout the year

Serves an over-the-top lunch monthly that sometimes ties into students’ curriculum

Students’ favorite lunches include a build-your-own mashed potato bar with four protein choices and multiple gravies; turkey pot roast; and St. Louis-style barbecue ribs (served at the middle and high schools)

Meet the FSD: Joe Urban

Joe Urban and Greenville County Schools student

Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Greenville County Schools

Q: How do you define your “school food rocks” philosophy?

A: “School food rocks” is definitely our hashtag—we like to use that. It’s a mindset, it’s a mantra, it’s a reminder to us that what we need to do every day is serve the greatest school food possible. So, for us, we’re on this crazy mission to try to completely reinvent what school food is.

Q: What’s your top goal for the next couple of years?

A: Our No. 1 goal is to continue on our current path, to analyze what we do every day and try to improve upon that because there’s always room for growth. [We will] continue to develop great leaders in our department and continue to take this department as far as we can take it. Right now, we’re on a mission to see how far this can go, and we’ve got a long way to go. 

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