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How a school nutrition program took things up a notch

school girl nutritious lunch
Photograph: Shutterstock

Every couple of weeks, the elementary school lunch period at Waltham Public Schools gets taken over by two special guests.

Ms. Toots and her sidekick, Professor Up-Beet, are a superhero duo who teach kids about healthy eating. Known as Fearless Foodies, the three-minute nutrition education sessions help kids make healthy choices in and outside the lunchroom. Topics include everything related to child nutrition, ranging from how to stay healthy during flu season to the importance of staying hydrated.

After each lesson, kids can sample a recipe they learned about and get a Fearless Foodies sticker for trying whatever is offered. The program ends with Ms. Toots and Professor Up-Beet leading students in a Fearless Foodies chant.

fearless foodies banana sticks
Photograph courtesy of Waltham Public Schools

Now in its second year, the Fearless Foodies program has become a “buzzword” throughout the Waltham, Mass., district, according to Food Service Director April Liles. It’s getting kids excited about eating healthy, she says.

While Fearless Foodies was Liles’ idea, the program wouldn’t have been possible without the help from those outside the nutrition team.

Since coming to Waltham four years ago, Liles has worked to make the program the best it can be through the assistance of community members, both within the district and throughout the Waltham community at large.

“That’s really my focus as an operator is to have strong relationships,” Liles says. “I always say that our program is about food and people. Everything else will kind of just fall into place if we can focus on those things.”

Fostering fearless foodies

Liles’ first task when she came to Waltham was to meet others from around the district and make connections. One of the things she noticed was that students were receiving very little instruction on how to eat healthy.

“We had a gap in our nutritional educational wellness program in the elementary schools,” she says. “When I came on, I quickly identified the need for kids to understand the importance of nutrition.”

Her biggest challenge was finding time to educate students without impacting their already busy schedules, Liles says. The idea for Fearless Foodies was inspired by lunch-and-learn programs at businesses, where employees learn about a topic related to their job while eating lunch. Liles thought she could do the same with students and nutrition.

“I presented [the idea] to the principals, and they said as long as it doesn’t disrupt how long the children have in the cafeteria, and as long as it’s not causing any delays in the actual schedule for the day, then have at it.”

She decided to start off with a pilot and just let the program grow on its own. The original Fearless Foodies was unnamed and brandless. Students simply grabbed their lunch and then had a quick nutrition education lesson once they sat down.

“I always say that our program is about food and people. Everything else will kind of just fall into place if we can focus on those things.” —April Liles

One of the major evolutions of the program happened when Liles reached out to Healthy Waltham, a local nonprofit dedicated to providing resources to help the Waltham community stay healthy. Healthy Waltham was able to give grants to kick-start the program, and Rebecca Toutant, Healthy Waltham staff member and registered dietitian, provided consulting.

“She came in and provided some direction,” Liles says. Through Toutant, Fearless Foodies was given its name, a superhero-themed brand and two characters (one played by Toutant) that kids could relate to. “We quickly found that kids identified with the branding and the programming materials,” Liles says.

Liles and Toutant also created a marketing plan filled with promotional materials to make sure Fearless Foodies is at the forefront of peoples’ minds—including teachers and parents.

Parents receive an email notifying them when Fearless Foodies is happening that week at their child’s school. After the lesson, they receive follow-up information about what their children learned with a link to the Fearless Foodies’ YouTube channel, which contains the recipe tutorials featured in the lesson. Teachers also get a handful of resources to expand on the lesson back in the classroom if they choose.

“It’s been kind of like bombarding people with this Fearless Foodies type of programming, but we’ve gotten a ton of positive results,” Liles says.

Fearless Foodies’ extensive marketing plan has paid off. Liles was at a soccer tournament recently wearing a Waltham Public Schools shirt. A Waltham elementary school player came up to her, asking her if she knew Ms. Toots. The student excitedly proclaimed that she loves Fearless Foodies and that she was making sure she was drinking enough water at soccer.

When she heard that, Liles says she almost started tearing up.

“When you’re grinding it out serving food every day, if you can do some small little enhancement that can impact [students’] lives, it’s really important and special,” she says.

Engaging the older kids

While Fearless Foodies is designed for elementary students, Liles has also used her connections to create engaging programming for older students. When Waltham’s high school culinary teacher was looking for a way to get her students more experience in catering large events, Liles realized that it was the perfect opportunity for a partnership.

“I approached her this year and said, ‘Let’s have your kids come up with themed menus each month.’ Waltham is a very diverse city so we can identify cuisines from where [the] students are from and try and build on that by designing a menu and do a pop-up,” Liles says.

food line
Photograph courtesy of Waltham Public Schools

Waltham’s culinary students now host their own themed meal each month in the cafeteria. Other than the nutrition staff buying the ingredients, which follow USDA guidelines and count as a reimbursable meal, the students handle everything from menu development to serving the dishes on the line.

“It’s a project-based learning opportunity … so they get to design the menu, help us cook, set it up and serve,” Liles says.

The students also create a Google Docs survey where their peers can leave feedback on the menu: “If they do like [a menu item], then we’ve been serving it the next month on our regular menu, so it also helps our program because we get some recipe development and some buy-in from the kids.”

One of the latest pop-ups featured Guatemalan cuisine inspired by a culinary student’s Guatemalan heritage. Waltham averages about 1,000 meals a day at its high school. On the day of the pop-up, the team served 1,300 meals, with 300 of them coming from the pop-up.

“We only made 300 portions because that’s all we can do with that capacity,” Liles says. “We hand out tickets to the first 100 kids at each lunch period that want to participate.”

While the team can’t expand the program at the high school, they are looking at hosting pop-ups at the middle school level in the future.

Reaching outside the district

While Liles is proactive about reaching out to members of the community in search for partnerships, sometimes community leaders come to her. About a year and a half ago, she was approached by the Greater Boston Food Bank. The organization was interested in opening up a food pantry inside one of the district’s cafeterias on the weekend.

Once a month, the district receives 15 pallets of free food from the food bank and works to convert one of its cafeterias into a grocery store for those in need in the community. The only requirement for using the food pantry is that the person has to live in Waltham. The food bank has about 500 families registered.

“When I first came and we sat down and asked what our mission statement was, it wasn’t really just about breakfast, lunch and dinner for these students. It was about things like connecting with the community and bridging the gap on trying to understand farm to school." —April Liles

A rotating group of middle school students acts as volunteers to help stock and bag food for the visitors.

“It’s a great opportunity for the people within the school district to connect and volunteer and help the people of Waltham,” Liles says.

Going local

Waltham’s nutrition team uses local produce. The district often sources from Waltham Fields, a community farm located near the district. About 25% of the produce served on the line is from the farm. The district often sources produce such as butternut squash, fresh romaine lettuce, zucchini, carrots and other root vegetables.

Approximately once a month, Waltham and representatives from surrounding colleges and universities meet to discuss farms in the area and what’s available for purchase. Liles is hoping the meetings help build relationships with nearby schools.

“That’s [the] next level: to collaborate with the colleges to get into cafes and their eateries and talk about how we can collaborate a little bit more,” she says. 

Using community to solve problems

Meal debt is top of mind at Waltham. 

We want to feed kids,” Liles says. “So many of us struggle with that, with these high [meal debt] invoices at the end of the year.”

Anonymous donors have stepped in to alleviate some of the debt, but Liles is still looking for other solutions. One of her ideas is to reach out to the district’s parent-teacher organization to see if it would be interested in having its next fundraiser benefit the nutrition program.

We want to feed kids. So many of us struggle with that, with these high [meal debt] invoices at the end of the year.” —April Liles

Another idea would be to take advantage of her district’s indoor grow racks to host a spring plant sale.

“Each elementary school has a grow rack,” Liles says. “My idea is to get some seeds donated and grow some basil and other plants and sell those and maybe the proceeds could go towards meal debt.”

Telling your story

Serving school meals to students is only one of the many roles that nutrition staff fill. Liles likes to refer to herself and her team as more than just lunch ladies.

“When I first came and we sat down and asked what our mission statement was, it wasn’t really just about breakfast, lunch and dinner for these students,” Liles says. “It was about things like connecting with the community and bridging the gap on trying to understand farm to school. That’s something we’ve tagged ourselves as. Not only just being the lunch ladies, but really engaging our communities to make a difference.”

As part of that goal, the Waltham nutrition team also makes sure to share news about their community partners through social media. One of the most important things districts should do, Liles says, is to make sure they are promoting the great work they are doing with their community partners.

“Everybody, including students, is consuming content [online] all day long, and if [operators] are not in that space yet, they should be,” she says.

Nutrition teams should have a Twitter handle, Facebook page and Instagram account, Liles says. And they should dedicate their time to posting regularly and creating a strong online presence.

“[Nutrition teams] should not be afraid to be there and tell their story and to let people know all the things they are doing that are wonderful,” Liles says. “There are a lot of amazing school districts that are doing amazing things, and you tend to see and hear about the same ones because they are the ones doing a good job telling their story. Operators should be telling people what they’re doing.”

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