Not many principals have experienced their schools from the perspective of a student. But Maria Pace, Boulder Elementary & Middle’s Principal-Superintendent, grew up attending Boulder Elementary and Middle School. Now an administrator, she devotes herself to nurturing the school that nurtured her.
A main focus for Maria is fostering a healthy school environment. With the work of passionate staff members and FoodCorps Service Members, Maria claims that
“FoodCorps has transformed our school lunch program.”
A new salad bar, local sourcing and implementation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program are a few projects FoodCorps initiated in the last five years. Students are increasingly enthusiastic about the school lunch program, and paid lunches have increased by over 25 percent in the last two years. I sat down with Maria to learn more about her experience as an administrator working with FoodCorps.
Q: How has the school food environment shifted in the last five years at Boulder Elementary & Middle School?
A: There was a school garden already in place when I started. But in the last five years the board of trustees has made a renewed commitment to a healthy school environment and really incorporated it into the school lunch program. We’re now preparing way more made-from-scratch meals and we have a full salad bar everyday.
Q: What are indicators of success you’ve seen?
A: The way children and parents are talking about the school foods program. The number of children and adults eating the school lunch has increased the last few years. The children have embraced FoodCorps, trying new things and the “Two Bite Club.” Initially people were like, “Kids aren’t gonna like that, they won’t try that.” But the kids really love the salad bar and the new food choices. Most people want to make healthy choices and so when it’s there and ready they will do it.
Q: How has FoodCorps played a role in the change?
A: FoodCorps has been instrumental in the shift. FoodCorps and our passionate staff members Rochelle Hesford and Dean Grentz worked together to coordinate garden efforts with the kitchen crew. FoodCorps handled the really tricky, hard things in the beginning — they helped introduce kids to new foods, guided our path to getting a salad bar, and got our Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program up and running. Without FoodCorps, those changes wouldn’t have been possible.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges?
A: In the cafeteria some of the biggest challenges have been the personnel and letting them know this is how we’re doing things now. We had to let them know that this is our vision — to have healthy, from scratch foods. Teachers, on the other hand, have loved FoodCorps coming into the classroom from day one. Having administration and the board of trustees fully support it has been instrumental. We let staff know that this is the direction we’re going and there’s no turning back.
Q: How do you encourage staff and teacher buy-in for these programs?
A: Lots of training, lots of support, lots of conversations. Building relationships so that people feel supported has been important. We’ve changed some of our policies about what’s expected from cafeteria personnel. We’ve changed their job descriptions to incorporate cooking from scratch and whole foods.
Q: What advice would you give to principals who want to make positive change in their school food environments but don’t know where to start?
A: Start with FoodCorps! Oh my gosh if you can get a FoodCorps service member in your school, that’s such a great place to start. They’ll build those relationships, support the kitchen staff and help to move things forward. Also, It’s key to have one or two people who are passionate about these issues. Rochelle and Dean are passionate about sharing their love of gardening with others and having FoodCorps here helps communicate that passion to the whole school. Letting kids pick and harvest things in the garden that they bring home or then see in the cafeteria is huge. It shares the passion for gardening with the kids. We’ve been lucky to have FoodCorps service members who really have the right skillset to make progress here.
Q: What’s your favorite thing on the lunch line?
A: Kale chips! Also the salad bar when we have a lot of items from the school garden. It’s healthy, tasty and the kids have done all that work in the garden to bring things into our school.
Boulder Elementary School’s 21st Century Community Learning Center
With experience working in the food industry, at companies such as Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farms, Mary quickly learned that issues around food knowledge and access were not an anomaly. She is eager to spend the year learning more about the problems as well as what feasible, on-the-ground solutions look like. In 10 years, she’d like to be using her marketing and PR knowledge at an organization working to provide solutions to what she sees as a fractured food system, contributing effective storytelling to help their causes. Mary loves gardening, and grows her own fruits and vegetables at a community garden.