Eileen Staples: Staying Ahead

Eileen Staples didn't wait for new meal regs to kick in, she made adjustments on her own.

At a Glance

  • 71,000 enrollment
  • 100 serving locations
  • 71,500 meals served each day
  • 750 foodservice employees


EILEEN STAPLES has renovated foodservice at GREENVILLE COUNTY SCHOOLS by:

  • DEVELOPING Culinary Creations, a dining program that improves the quality and healthfulness of meals. A chef was hired to lead the program, in which more items are cooked from scratch
  • FOCUSING on training, particularly food safety, to ensure the department’s goals are consistent throughout this large district
  • RENOVATING or rebuilding 60 school cafeterias, which led to increased participation
  • TAKING over school stores to sell students food items and school supplies 

In an era when school foodservice is going through perhaps its biggest changes, it’s a benefit to have a leader like Eileen Staples in charge. Staples, the director of food and nutrition services at Greenville County Schools, in South Carolina, sensed an overhaul of child nutrition programs was forthcoming and, instead of waiting to see what new requirements were to come, she made aggressive adjustments to get out in front.

“I’m not one to sit back and wait,” Staples says, a sentiment echoed by Joe Urban, program coordinator. “Eileen is an incredible leader. She has great foresight. We’re always two or three steps ahead because of her leadership.”

That stay-ahead mentality is best seen in the development three years ago of Culinary Creations, a healthy dining program. “We knew we were going to get new regs with the USDA, but there was really a need for us to get ahead of the program and try to implement a healthier feeding program, beginning with the elementary schools,” Staples recalls.

Teaching healthy habits

To kick off the program, Staples hired a chef, Ron Jones, as culinary specialist. Jones spent an entire year developing healthier recipes, such as black bean cheeseburgers, vegetable frittatas, enchilada pie and housemade soups. Under the Culinary Creations program, students have three entrée choices each day: vegetarian, hot protein or the vegetation station (salad bar).

Jones then implemented the program at A.J. Whittenberg elementary school. Whittenberg was selected as the pilot site because administrators at this school decided that they would include health and nutrition as a part of the curriculum.

The school joined CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Child Health), a national holistic child wellness program that targets multiple aspects of the school environment, including child nutrition, classroom education and physical education. Students and staff at Whittenberg were trained in the CATCH program, and the cafeteria lines employ the Go, Slow, Whoa! food labeling program. “There are no foods that are disallowed in the CATCH program, but the kids know that when they are eating a ‘whoa’ food they are not supposed to eat as much of that food,” Staples says.

Following the successful implementation of Culinary Creations at Whittenberg, the program was expanded to 10 additional elementary schools. As part of the expansion, principals, PE teachers and PTA members at each school agreed to sign a contract joining the CATCH program.

“We have one school [where] if they have a birthday celebration the kids are allowed to have a cupcake, but right after the kids go outside and walk on the track for 15 or 20 minutes,” Staples says. “There’s a real buy-in [to CATCH] as far as the PE and foodservice components.” 

Training for best practices

Staples knew that as the program expanded, she’d need to train her staff. “Because this program is so different from what we’ve done [by cooking more from scratch], we needed a partner,” she says. Staples turned to Greenville Technical College’s culinary institute, which created a curriculum for Staples’ staff. The summer before a school is added to Culinary Creations, staff spend one week at the college learning tools such as proper knife skills.

Because Culinary Creations is so different from what had always been done, some people in the district weren’t crazy about the idea. “I had one principal who was very apprehensive,” Staples recalls. “He was thinking, ‘I’ve got a school of 1,000 kids. How am I going to do this?’ It does take longer to serve them [in the program]. He showed up to the culinary training and watched for a couple of hours. I saw him later and he was a firm believer. It’s been a very positive experience for us.”

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