Out of all the areas of FoodCorps service, serving in cafeterias and promoting healthy school meals has always been my favorite. Maybe it’s because, in accordance with the unspoken prerequisite of being a FoodCorps service member, I love food and will sprint at any opportunity to surround myself with as much of it as possible. Maybe it’s because my mother was a lunch lady in the only high school in our small district, and I used to spend my mornings before school hiding under the racks of cooling cookies, crumbs littering my overalls, giggling with the other women before I was found and reprimanded. Maybe, and most likely, it’s because I just love being around people. While I’m sure teachers and any adult within hearing distance would prefer school cafeterias to be more systematized and organized (and dare I say disciplined?), I’m the big, gaping exception to that rule. Cafeterias are where friendships are made (but sometimes broken), where Pokémon cards and fidget spinners are the only respectable forms of currency, and where kids get to just be kids. This is why, during my second year of service in the New Brunswick Public Schools, I felt like the luckiest service member in the country to be a grantee of the Share Our Strength Breakfast After the Bell Grant, which funded promotional materials and equipment to increase the number of students eating breakfast in their first period classrooms at school.
Because the school I was serving in was conveniently located directly across the street from Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, Lincoln Annex was informally designated as the “Health & Wellness” school. New school, new year, new programs, and ultimately, a new school culture of health, right? Of course that’s the goal, but as many who work in or with the public school system know, getting school communities on board with health and wellness issues is not always an easy task. This is not because teachers don’t care about the health and wellness of their students, but rather a result of the overwhelming amount of extra duties and testing and reporting requirements piled into a teacher’s job description, often without extra compensation. When I was first introduced to the Breakfast After the Bell program at Lincoln Annex, I quickly learned that teachers and principals alike were unhappy with the time that eating breakfast in the classroom took away from other classroom activities, not to mention the mess it made. Trash bags in the classrooms were full of loose milk, and that’s when the milk actually made it into the trash. Most times it was spilled on top of desks, creating sticky messes that required a longer clean up, either taking time away from breakfast or the following class.
The “Three C’s of Farm to School,” originally written by the farm to school program Vermont FEED, emphasize the importance of collaboration across classroom, cafeteria and community in building a farm to school movement. Similarly, I have made my own “Three C’s of Cafeteria Programming:” keep it consistent, keep it cute, and keep it competitive. For our purposes, consistency meant making sure all parties involved were equally informed, and equally included in the process. The vice principal and I visited each 3rd grade classroom, briefed the teachers, asked for feedback and administered a pre-survey to students asking which breakfast items they’d like the eat the most, which they liked the least, and for reasons why they might not be eating breakfast on a given day. We used this information to create a menu that not only catered to the needs of the teachers (less milky desks, please!) but also — for the most part — the students (pancakes, please!). But most importantly, if we said we were going to do something or show up, we followed through.
Working with the Food Service Director, we decided to use the grant money to begin serving warm options. Our main motivation for implementing a new warm breakfast menu stemmed from many factors: the students’ low participation rates and their complaints about the cereal, the teachers’ complaints about the mess, and our desire to be able to offer options with less sugar and higher protein content. For starters, we piloted the program exclusively in 3rd grade classrooms, half because third graders have a beautiful capacity to embrace new programs with unadulterated excitement (and hey, we wanted to feel good about ourselves) and half because third graders are brutally honest (and we also wanted to make absolutely sure that what we were trying to accomplish would work and be sustainable).
Next, to achieve optimal cuteness, we are planning to distribute “Better Breakfast Bags” to each classroom this fall, including posters and handouts on how to distribute and account for breakfast participants, as well as how to encourage students to eat breakfast every day and create a positive, breakfast-friendly classroom environment. Each classroom will receive a large calendar and stickers so that each day they reach 100% participation, they can record it on the calendar with a bright sticker, making participation a visual and relevant part of the day. Additionally, beginning in the fall, a larger-than-life poster of a fruit smoothie will be hung in the cafeteria, tracking the participation rates of each grade (as the rates go up, so too does the volume of the smoothie).
Lastly: keep it competitive. This can take many shapes, but in our case, we told the students that the classroom with the highest participation at the end of each marking period would receive a prize. After our pilot this past spring, we awarded the winning class with a pizza party featuring a healthy toppings bar. If that’s not incentive, I’m not sure what is.
When I first came to FoodCorps, I had grandiose ideas that I’d be reciting Shakespeare with students in a beautifully landscaped school garden, munching on freshly harvested cherry tomatoes from a bowl, and singing about plant parts as the sun set in the background and butterflies landed on all our shoulders for the most epic selfie ever. But when I first began service in New Brunswick last year, we didn’t have money for bowls, let alone garden space and materials to produce food to put into said bowls. My advice for anyone looking to make change in school meal programs is to be flexible, persistent, and bring everyone to the table. Know that this work is important. Children need to access to healthy school meals, and sometimes this means emailing the principal five times in a row before showing up in her office, sitting outside her door and waving her down on her way to the bathroom in order to schedule a meeting. Be that person. I was that person, and afterwards the principal thanked me for it.
Piloting a new program of this scale in any environment — the cafeteria, the classroom, or the garden — does not happen after one meeting with two people. While the Food Service Director and I were extremely proud of our success, it took the entire school community to make this possible. From scheduling and facilitating meetings between food service, principals, nurses, custodians and teachers, our success is due to many people, including the students. It takes a lot of courage to try new foods and to adapt to new systems. As an adult, I’m not particularly sure how warm and fuzzy I’d feel if some lady came into my class, took away my cereal, and gave me a hard boiled egg. I am humbled by my students’ willingness to trust me when I wave fruits and vegetables before their eyes like a magician, and I am humbled when those same students call me and my magical vegetables out for what they really are: one huge experiment.