In the classroomIn mid-June, FoodCorps service members from across Montana had the privilege of attending the annual Montana School Nutrition Association Conference in Great Falls. The theme of the conference was “Good Nutrition Makes Cents,” and indeed, not only were there workshops about cooking with lentils and new strategies for using whole grains, but there were also multiple sessions on procuring local food. Nicki Jimenez, Camille McGoven and Zoe Tucker were fortunate to have a chance to present a workshop on “Classroom and Cafeteria Connections” to a room full of dedicated food service staff who wanted to know how to get kids to eat healthier foods.

Sometimes some adults think (mistakenly) that kids just naturally don’t like fruits and vegetables. This has even been brought up as a reason to scale back the requirements for fruits and vegetables in schools—of course it’s a waste for school food services to see food they’ve bought and prepared get scraped off trays into garbage cans (or into compost buckets). But as service member Leah Kroger recently wrote, it’s a fallacy that kids are somehow instinctively sugar- and junk food-craving maniacs. To the contrary, an astronomical amount of marketing dollars is spent on getting kids to like junk food, while very little is spent on marketing vegetables (except for some fabulous and creative recent efforts like this one).

IMG_3792With this problem in mind, Nicki, Camille and I wanted to share our “marketing” strategies for fruits and vegetables with school food service staff. Sure, these strategies are a lot lower budget and smaller scale, but at the grassroots level, they absolutely work. Here are a few tactics we discussed that you, too, can use in your school meal programs:

Outside of the School Day: creatively use more flexible food programs and school events for showcasing local food.

  • Summer Feeding Programs—If you live in a cold place like we do, summer feeding programs are a great outlet for local and even school garden produce during the height of the season! This is also a great opportunity for involving kids in fun activities such as growing and harvesting produce for the summer feeding programs, farmer or rancher visits, and farm field trips.
  • Concessions—Since concession stands often have higher budgets, they can be a great opportunity for things like local beef (Red Lodge Schools have experimented with this!).
  • Family open houses—A great way to showcase the school lunch program by providing a meal or taste test for families.
  • Field trips and farmer visits—Want one of the most effective ways for connecting kids to where their food comes from? Meeting the actual human who grew, tended, and harvested their veggies.

In the classroom: kids who learn about new foods will more likely try and love them!

  • Snack Facts—With the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, other snack programs, or even menu items, food service staff or volunteers can make and distribute snack fact sheets that say 1. What a food is 2. Why it’s good for you and, if it’s local, 3. Where it comes from and why eating local can be a good choice. Here you can find a trove of her amazing snack fact sheets that you can adapt for your own school or use as inspiration!
  • “Snacktivities”—Movement-based activities that Nicki and other service members use to get kids thrilled about eating healthy, Montana-grown foods like lentils, butternut squash, and beets. (Nicki even led workshop participants in a snacktivity that acted out growing and preparing butternut squash. “And CHOP! And CHOP! And CHOP! And CHOP!…”). As a food service worker, you can send these activities to classroom teachers along with the snack of the day.

In the cafeteria: start small and celebrate each victory by throwing yourself a big party!

  • [Insert your State] Meal Day—In your state–Montana, for example–try serving all Montana-made food for just one meal a year. Invite parents, make signs, make a day of it! This brings great attention to your program and can increase participation. It’s a totally manageable way to introduce local food into your school budget in an exciting way.
  • Harvest of the Month/Monthly Menu Items—It’s one step up from once a year but it can still stay within your budget: try featuring ONE local item a month. It can be a sample, an entree, or a weekly feature, but when you have one item it’s super easy and fun to make a big hullabaloo around it with activities, taste tests or even lessons.
  • Taste tests—Want to introduce a new food to your lunch menu, or give kids a chance to re-acquaint themselves with something you already serve? Try a taste test in the cafeteria–on the line, at a table, or bringing it to the kids with a tray. Take a poll to gather the kids’ opinion, which makes them feel respected and can also help you make menu decisions. Giving kids the power to help choose something that could be served at lunch can subtly nudge them to try—and like!—things you might think they wouldn’t touch.

IMG_3799We also knew that the workshop participants would have a lot more experience in this area than we would, as they had spent years and years in school kitchens cooking and baking with incredible dedication to their students. Hoping to give the participants an opportunity to learn from each other, we facilitated a discussion group around each of the three topics in our presentation, where we got to share our hurdles and tricks for getting over them. The discussion groups created a perfect cafeteria-like environment for modeling a taste test! As food service staff shared, Kirsten Gerbatsch, our fearless FoodCorps Fellow, brought around Kalispell Public Schools’ Local Squash-Lentil Hummus. Everyone took a taste and chose a “tried it,” “liked it,” or “loved it!” ballot to cast.

When the votes were tallied, the group overwhelmingly “loved” Montana-grown lentils and squash. Hooray! (Though we can’t say we were surprised…) In the end, it seemed like everyone, including us, walked away with at least one new strategy they’re excited about implementing in their school. Thanks to the Montana School Nutrition Association for letting us participate in this year’s conference!

This post was written by Zoe Tucker, Camille McGoven and Nicki Jimenez – the three inspiring FoodCorps members who presented at the MT SNA Conference in Great Falls in June 2014.