It’s a bit trite to say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it’s a truism that holds, especially for young students—including those who may not get enough to eat at home. Prince William County Public Schools in Manassas, Va., takes that to heart, focusing heavily on breakfast service and offering students a variety of options to make sure kids get their days off to a well-fueled start.
Read on to see how the district does just that.
Where it starts
“The idea behind everything we do is [that] your food and environment affects how you come to the day to learn,” says Adam Russo, director of the district’s Office of School Food and Nutrition Services. “If we can meet them where they are, breakfast becomes part of their routine and they’re set up for success the rest of the day.”
The district is made up of 101 schools and centers, and every school offers breakfast in the classroom. Each high school also has an “after the bell” grab-and-go program for students who aren’t hungry right at the start of the day.Nominate an FSO of the Month
What’s on the menu
Both breakfast programs offer similar items, and they’re not always the typical: In addition to the megapopular French toast sticks, cereal and breakfast sandwiches, Prince William County also serves chicken sliders, smoothies and baby carrots in a bag.
“We had these carrots and decided two years ago [to] put them out at breakfast and see who wants them,” Russo says. “Now, 10% of scholars are taking baby carrots at the first meal of the day. They get exposed to vegetables, and they get those valuable vitamins and nutrients. It’s a small thing that’s really exciting for us.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
While the classroom breakfast setup has been running for about six years, the grab-and-go setup was added in the 2017-2018 school year. “Lots of these high schoolers were coming to school not wanting breakfast right away, but then by the end of that first period, they were hungry,” Russo says. “We developed a pilot program at one school to figure out how we can make things portable for these kids to grab a meal they can eat in their hand as they walk down the hall, or as they set up their stuff for the next class.”
The pilot was an immediate success, so Russo and his team quickly rolled it out to all high schools. It was part of the effort that won Prince William County a “Gold” award from No Kid Hungry’s Virginia Breakfast Challenge earlier this year, which celebrates innovations in the morning meal.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Awards are a nice acknowledgment, Russo says, but in a district where 43% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the real success comes from seeing kids consuming nourishing food.
“We have one guiding principle: ‘See kid, feed kid,’” Russo says. “It’s one I picked up at Norfolk (in a previous job). I dined with one student on a Friday before Fourth of July weekend who had spilled strawberry on his shirt. I saw him the following Tuesday and he was wearing the same stained shirt and was so hungry that he was shaking. I told the staff to give him whatever food he wanted, and I went into the walk-in cooler and cried.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Prince William County doesn’t focus solely on the menu for breakfast or lunch—which includes scratch-made meatloaf, chicken enchiladas, stuffed peppers with soy crumbles and strawberry shortcake. The service is just as important, if not more so.
That’s why Russo decided five years ago to convert a standard training coordinator position to the role of coordinator for guest experience. That person has their hand in food, service, recipe development, event planning and employee in-service days—all with the core goal of making students smile.
“I’ve never met anyone across the country with this title or even a similar role,” says Samantha Ronk, who took on the guest experience position. “The fact that we even have it reflects our whole approach to foodservice.”
While Ronk’s position is by definition one that involves her in all aspects of the district’s foodservice, she most enjoys coordinating “lesson plans” with students, through which they can experience part of the operation. Second-graders, for example, compete in a friendly corn-husking contest, learning about different parts of the ears selected from a local farm, shucking the corn and helping prepare it for service the next day. High schoolers are treated to a “food flow” tour, which walks them through receiving food shipments to storing, preparing and serving.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Making it count
Such programs help make the difference, Ronk says. “For efforts to be successful, they have to be authentic. Embrace what your staff is passionate about. Someone might be great at baking bread and another is really into social media. Let them shine where they enjoy and they’ll be happier, which is passed right along to students.”
Russo agrees. “It’s easy to get stuck in the way you’ve always done things, but no one ever grew in their comfort zone,” he says, noting that operators should remember to “get out of your own way.”
The central tenet is intention, Russo says, which will carry an operation through even its bad days: “If something didn’t work out the way we intended, that can feel rough. But if we fed kids good food at the right temperature with a smile, everything’s OK. We failed on the right side of things, and we’re going to grow from it starting tomorrow.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Meet the FSD: Adam Russo
Director of School Food and Nutrition Services,
Prince William County Public Schools
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
My goal is always to feed more kids. Every day, we want to feed more than we did the day before. The overarching goal within that is to make all scholars feel welcome. We want every child, when they come though here, to know they are not a number to us. We hear them. We see them. We understand what they want and we try to shape every menu item and every decision we make around them.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
It’s care. We have an amazing staff that really cares about the people we serve, and that’s evident both in the way we present and make our food and the way we serve it. Service can’t be forgotten in a school. Our scholars might not see a smile that day until they come to us for breakfast in the morning. Our staff is willing to run through walls for our kids.Nominate an FSO of the Month