For some school-based operations, foodservice is mostly relegated to the cafeteria: Feed the kids a healthy lunch, fuel them to learn and then send them on their way.
But at Plymouth School District in Wisconsin, foodservice extends to just about everywhere students are: offering nutritional lessons in the classroom, appearing at Future Farmers of America club meetings, harvesting lunch ingredients from an on-campus greenhouse and even purchasing pork from a student’s family farm.
“In a community like ours, there’s a focus on eating real food and knowing where it comes from,” says the district’s FSD Caren Johnson. “That means incorporating [nutrition education] into different parts of our students’ days, and into their lives.”
Plymouth is in the center of Sheboygan County, roughly halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee. Unlike those major Wisconsin cities, Plymouth is a rural enclave. In fact, many district students miss the first week of school to attend the Sheboygan County Fair—helping to sell animals, meat, vegetables and other offerings from family farms.
Here, food is quite literally a way of life. Johnson and her team treat it as such, as does the district at large. The high-school curriculum, for example, includes horticulture and greenhouse management among other agricultural classes.
“When it’s time for our agricultural teacher to order seeds, she’ll share her plans for the curriculum in the coming year, what these particular kids are interested in—and ask what would be beneficial for us,” Johnson says. “We can tell her we’ve had trouble getting fresh basil from a distributor. So we help each other, and the kids get excited about growing something that will be eaten at school, because they literally had a hand in it.”
Often these plans start as casual chats in the hallway, Johnson says. It’s just one example of the close-knit relationships that the foodservice team works hard to build—and Johnson sees this as one of her team’s chief responsibilities.
Perhaps the team’s most important relationships are with the students, who are spread across three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Johnson, along with many members of her team of eight full time employees and 11 part-timers, are familiar fixtures in the cafeteria.
“I make it a point every day to be at the high school when that bell rings for lunch,” Johnson says, “I'm on the floor seeing what they're taking, listening to their conversations about the food, and asking them: Do you want to have this again? The kids know us, so they’re very comfortable talking to us—and kids can be brutally honest, for good and bad!”
The students especially click with District Chef Jenny Goelzer, thanks to her “quick sense of humor that helps them roll right into a conversation,” Johnson says.
Beyond conversations in the cafeteria, Goelzer particularly enjoys connecting with the Future Farmers of America club and agricultural students, whom she says are the foodservice team’s best marketers.
“When those kids bring down microgreens and cherry tomatoes they grew in the greenhouse, they’re so excited to show their friends that it’s in the salad bar—the same way the student who knows we bought pork from [his family farm] will light up,” Goelzer says. “A student spreading that message is something other students are really going to hear and take to heart.”
Meanwhile, Plymouth’s younger students engage in their own ways, often with a tie-in to classroom lessons. In the fall, Goelzer invited into the kitchen second-graders learning to count by tens. Together, they cracked open pumpkins and pulled out the seeds, counting them by tens and then seasoning them for roasting. The next day Goelzer served the pumpkin seeds alongside lunch entrees, to the children’s delight.
Whether the students are younger or older, “they’re much more apt to try things when they’re a part of the process,” she says. And when needed for the younger kids, a simple reward like a sticker can be the impetus for trying something new: “When you’re six, a sticker can absolutely make your day.”
Goelzer herself attended Plymouth’s schools, and she remembers “eating nacho cheese and chips and half the time.” That’s no longer, thanks to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that initially pushed Plymouth to focus more on scratch-made meals, as the team told FSD in 2019.
Soon after that conversation, however, COVID-fueled supply issues made further progress on that goal more challenging. Currently, about 60% of meals at the high-school level are scratch-made, around 40% for middle school and 25% at the elementary level. Some of those challenges are finally abating, Johnson says, and in the meantime, it’s pushed the team to make more condiment items like salad dressings and sauces from scratch.
Scratch is a focus for Johnson as she plans each month-long cycle menu—but her true guiding principle is designing a menu that draws students in, yet also exposes them to a new world.
“We feel it’s our responsibility to ensure students leave with a love of food,” Johnson says. “The world is so full of tastes. You just have to be adventurous enough to go out there and try it.
Get to know Plymouth School District's Caren Johnson
See what’s in store for Johnson’s operation, which was named FSD’s January Foodservice Operation of the Month.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
Everyone connects, from our team to the students to the teachers to the administrators. Those relationships mean everything. Because we have forged relationships, a member of our team can have a casual conversation with a teacher in the hallway that ultimately leads to an in-class educational activity with our team. Without us all supporting each other, things just wouldn't work and flow as well as they do.
Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?
I joke that our daily goal for the department is to get the kids fed. Like anywhere, there are days when you can tell everybody is exhausted and frazzled. I look at them and say: “Hey, did the kids get fed? Yes? OK, then, mission accomplished.” It keeps things in perspective.
Our overarching goal is increasing our participation. We have a decent participation rate overall—we’re a little over 50% district-wide—but I know there are districts out there with 80% or 90%. So I’m always trying to reach those bagged-lunch kids and find out: “Why are you not taking lunch with us?” If we could get them in with us even once or twice a month that’s a win.
Probably any [operation] would say, “Well, of course I want to increase my participation.” It helps their bottom line. But for us it’s really about wanting them to be part of the nutrition education and the experience they just can't get from bringing lunch. We want to build kids up to make good choices and to live a healthier lifestyle as they grow.Nominate an FSO of the Month