The new SNA president sounds off on what's getting in the way of nutrition

Hey SNA, what’s eating you?

becky domokos-bays

Becky Domokos-Bays, the new president of the School Nutrition Association and supervisor of nutrition services for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, says she wants her term to look to the future as much as possible. She’s thinking about what the segment is going to look like in five, 10 and even 15 years. Here’s how she predicts nutrition, technology, sustainability and regulations will converge to impact how students are fed.

Q: What nutrition concerns are top of mind for foodservice directors in K-12 schools?

A: One challenge is finding the choices that kids will eat within the time frames that they have to come into the cafeteria, go through the line and sit down and eat. Recommendations show that kids should have at least 10 minutes after they sit down to eat for breakfast, and at least 15 minutes for lunch.

The day has gotten tighter—kids are being required to do more and more during the academic day, and there are only so many places you can squeeze out minutes. Unfortunately, lunch is one of those places. They squeeze out a minute here or a minute there, and that doesn’t sound like a lot. But, for example, in our district, we average about four to five kids through the register in a minute. So if you’ve got three registers going and you’re a minute behind, you’re already 15 kids behind.

Q: What has been a barrier to providing kids with nutritional foods that meet guidelines?

A: Just making sure we get the products we need, when we need them. There are some broken links in the procurement pipeline, and SNA is working on helping facilitate conversations between all stakeholders, from directors to distributors to manufacturers to the USDA. Manufacturers don’t always know what distributors do, directors don’t know what brokers do, brokers don’t know what directors do—so that’s a lot of conversations that have to happen. The more we talk about these things, the more they come to light.

Sometimes the fix isn’t quite so difficult; it’s just that we haven’t talked about it before. We formed an SNA procurement task force last November and identified the areas that were not appropriately linked together. Basically, you want the food on the plate for the kid, so you’ve got to get the right steps in place in the right order and get everyone synced up.

When a director writes a bid and writes a specification for a product, they need to be specific. Let’s just say someone wants beets. Well what kind of beets? What size? What grade? And some directors don’t have the skill set to be able to do that well. Distributors will tell you they will get bids that haven’t been updated for some time. Especially in the last several years, manufacturers have retooled their product line, and so code numbers change. And if you submit the wrong code number, you don’t know what you are going to get.

Q: What part does technology play in creating a better environment for students?

A:  I think social media is driving a lot of good marketing in schools. It depends on the size of the district; very small districts with limited resources and limited bandwidth sometimes can’t afford to have some of the technology that’s out there. We actually conducted a customer satisfaction survey of all of our middle and high school students this year to get some feedback with the help of social media. We found out our high school kids with allergies are too afraid to eat from the cafeteria, because they weren’t sure what’s in the food. We know that if you post signs with nutrition information, they really don’t read them. The next step is looking at how to get kids signed up for our mobile app and to visit our website for that information.

When we do taste parties we use QSR codes, and we use iPads and students’ iPhones to evaluate products. That’s the way kids think, and those are the tools they use nowadays. We’ve got to come along with them on that ride.

Q: Where do you see the future of child nutrition going?

A: We laugh and ask, “Will drones be delivering student meals?” One thing that I do see continuing to grow is the farm-to-school and local food movement. We have well over 45,000 students who are getting locally grown food integrated into their day. I think that’s wonderful; kids need to have that connection.

But also, we have to really partner with our families. If kids don’t see fruits and vegetables and a variety of different foods at home, it’s very difficult for us to initiate that. So we have to really put forth our nutrition values in the community. When you write a wellness policy, you include members of the community; it’s an opportunity to shine and show off your program.

In my prior district, we just said we were looking for people who were interested, and we had about 60 people working on our wellness program that the school board eventually passed. We’ve got different advocacy groups, a local farm and even mental health professionals. It’s just a wide variety of people in the community who really have a vested interest in nutrition. All you have to do is ask, and you’ll be surprised at all the people who come forward.

Q: What elements of nutrition do you think will become a bigger factor in the future?

A: Part of the health code is that we provide potable water to kids, a provision that was driven by the folks out in California. The problem is, in the future, where is the water going to come from? That’s the concern I have.
I think there are districts that have problems with clean water, but my concern is 20 years down the road, or even further beyond, where’s that water going to come from? That affects the crops—that affects the whole business. That’s where some of the locally grown foods should be able to help; you don’t have to transport it, and you aren’t as dependent on climate. But we can’t survive without these larger farms. So we have to come up with some ways that we will be more sustainable.

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