School food CAN be tasty, healthy, and appealing to kids! Here’s how one mom changed things for the better at her kids’ school.
My friend Wende Hageman is a school food champion.
She would probably laugh off this label, waving it away with an “Oh, please!”
But that’s what she is, so I wanted to tell her story.
Before I do, please know this: I don’t think school food is simple, that the whole beast of an issue–tangled up in politics and red tape–could instantly be solved if more people were like Wende. Every school is unique and faces different challenges.
But one person can make a difference in their community.
About three years ago, Wende took a part-time job in the cafeteria of her children’s parochial school to help foot their family’s tuition bill. A year later, the longtime cafeteria manager retired, and Wende was asked by the principal to be the next manager.
Leading the school kitchen meant she could make changes, big changes–the kind she had always wanted to see, not only as an employee but also as a parent with kids eating school food every day.
So little by little, she did. She took risks, she rocked the boat a little, and she chose the hard path instead of the easy route. And a funny thing happened: More kids began to buy school lunch, and the cafeteria started to turn a small but meaningful profit.
Wende is the cafeteria manager at St. Michael School, a Catholic K-8 in Worthington, Ohio with approximately 400 students. She has a team of four part-time staff (parent volunteers, trained in basic sanitation, also help serve lunch). The school is part of the National School Lunch Program, which means they rely on USDA funds. Her goal, like all cafeteria managers, is to increase lunch participation, because that means more funding for her operation.
But she had other goals too, like nudging students toward fresher, less processed foods, getting their palates used to whole grain bread, and expanding their horizons to more adventurous meals and cuisines. “It’s a sure thing to serve pizza every week, but I’d rather do something creative and fun,” she says. “We know kids are capable of eating things beyond pizza.”
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Being part of the National School Lunch Program also means they have to follow the USDA’s nutrition standards for school meals, which call for more vegetables and whole grains. “It can be challenging to plan menus around it, but the intentions are good. These are the things kids should be eating,” she says. “It can feel difficult to put beans on the menu each week, but you want your child to be at a school where they put effort into a healthy lunch.”
Though the federal government is now allowing schools to opt out of some of the rules (like more whole grains), Wende has no plans of going backward. All of their pasta is whole grain. Ditto for flatbread, bagels, and crackers. “It was a rough road for a little while,” Wende says. “But our students are used to it now.” It helps that the healthy options from her vendors have improved so much. The day I visited, they were using up extra whole grain tortillas for baked cinnamon chips as a treat with lunch, and the kids happily gobbled them up (I had some too, and they were yummy!).
Here are some of the other changes Wende has made:
She put in a salad bar. This had been a long-time request from the principal, school board, and parents, and Wende did the research and legwork to make it happen. She hired a staff member to prep and manage it, and up to 40 students (plus a few teachers) pass through it each day. They stock an array of fruits, veggies, and toppings and the most popular are diced chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and banana peppers. “Student are getting a lot more servings of vegetables because we’re letting them take it on their own,” says Wende. “Kids make pretty good choices when left to their own devices.”
She stopped frying food. The cafeteria was still using a deep fryer for foods like chicken nuggets, fries, and onion rings just before Wende became manager. She worked to find baked versions of these items instead, figuring out how to get a crispy texture and good taste. They made the transition slowly, and did hear from parents and students who weren’t fans of the change at first. She likes to remind parents that although school lunch is an important part of the students’ day, kids eat many more meals at home. “If you want to fry food at home, that’s fine, but your child’s school should not be doing it,” she says. “We should be setting an example for healthy living.”
She phased out canned fruit. They still occasionally serve canned mandarin oranges and pineapple chunks, but she reduced their canned fruit usage by 80 percent in favor of fresh. “I’m spending so much money on fresh fruit, but it’s worth it!” she says. Because the cafeteria is making a small profit, it means she can buy items like fresh red grapes and tastier varieties of apples, like Fuji and Gala instead of less expensive Red Delicious.How One Mom Became a School Food Champion:
She stopped serving pizza every week. No doubt, pizza is a slam dunk. But Wende was convinced that students could learn to like a whole lot more—and she was right. Case in point: Their Toasted Ham & Cheese Flatbread, served with cucumbers, hummus, and a pear, is becoming just as popular as the pizza.
They still serve pizza and chicken nuggets, but less often (about once or twice a month). “The easy way would’ve been to continue serving chicken nuggets, fruit cocktail, and pizza all the time,” she says. “But we feel a responsibility to our students. This is the fuel for the rest of their day. We want them them to feel good from eating a healthy lunch, so they can run around on the playground and be ready to learn when they return to class.”
She added new menu items. Wende phased out unpopular meals like meatloaf and Salisbury steak and replaced them with trendier fare like Asian bowls, wraps, and street tacos. “I thought that if I took risks updating menu items and actually asking students what they wanted to eat for lunch, we might be able to develop a lunch menu that was healthy, popular and made enough money to allow us to pay workers a little better and buy higher quality, fresher food,” she says. Another recent addition: Chicken and Waffles with southern green beans, corn on the cob, and warm peach cobbler. It meets all the nutrition standards, is visually appealing and delicious–and best of all, is a hit with students.
Even better, they’re cooking more of these meals from scratch. Not every school has the staff to make that happen, but since Wende does, she’s made it her goal. “I’m trying to do it the old fashioned way,” she says. All the soups are homemade. In fact, the cook’s homemade chili is so good that kids went home and told their parents–who called the cafeteria for the recipe.
As a mom, Wende also knows firsthand that some children need time. “Children need to try something more than once,” she says. She typically serves a meal four times before going back to the drawing board.
She started doing tastings. Wende and her team implemented “Tasty Tuesdays”, when they serve a brand new meal (voted on by the students). One day it was Chicken Tortilla Soup with Rainbow Salad, another a Chipotle Bowl with chicken and brown rice, and another Sweet Teriyaki Chicken with Veggie Fried Rice and Edamame, plus a fortune cookie. And even kids who don’t choose to buy lunch that day can sample the new meal.
She eliminated the snack bar. It was stocked with USDA-approved “Smart Snacks” like whole-grain and fat-free chips and ice cream—and it made money. It was practically a lunchroom institution, says Wende. But she decided to take a chance and see if they could survive without it. “I knew it was an easy way to make money, but was it a good choice? It seemed like marketing to children, and I didn’t like how that felt,” says Wende. “Parents can feel free to pack a fun-size candy bar in their child’s lunch box, but I didn’t think it was the school’s role to provide that. Parents can pack a bag of Doritos for their child, but the school shouldn’t be the one selling it to them.” She hoped she could replace the revenue by serving high-quality, fresh food and hoping more students bought lunch.
Reaction from students (and parents!) was mixed at first. But ultimately, everyone got along just fine without it. “I heard nothing more about it,” says Wende. “Except for one parent who said to me recently, ‘I miss those ice cream bars!”
She rebranded. Fun labels can make a difference for students. She renamed the baked beans “Cowboy Beans” (and jazzed them up with tomatoes, onions, and spices). When they dubbed their whole grain pasta “Spooky Spaghetti” for Halloween, they doubled their sales. They also reworked a Pioneer Woman recipe for Cincinnati Chili and served it on baseball’s opening day, with Grand Slam Spaghetti, Batter Up! Breadstick, Cheer ’em on Chili Beans, Pop Fly Pear and Catchers Mitt Milk.
She helped the cafeteria go greener. They instantly reduced waste (and costs) by getting rid of straws. They’re also transitioning from plastic utensils to actual flatware. And the school administration worked with the cafeteria to start recycling water bottles, juice boxes, and milk cartons, thanks to an effort from the principal and school wellness committee.
She started promoting healthy choices. “I think one of the most meaningful changes that Wende has made is the educational piece on nutrition for the students,” says parent Maria Elliott, who serves on the school’s wellness committee. “Whether it be from posters, letters sent home, bulletin boards, or discussions as the children walk through the lunch line, Wende helps children and their families understand the WHY of healthy nutritional changes she has made.” Wende also notes that she’s seeing more classes come down to the cafeteria for tours and to talk about food and nutrition.
“The biggest most meaningful change, I feel, is she is truly teaching these kids that whole grains, fresh fruit, raw and cooked fresh veggies, paired with a variety of proteins is a tasty way to eat,” says parent Talia Cromwell, also on the school’s wellness committee. “She’s introducing many new fruits and veggies to our kids that we as parents are hesitant to do. It’s challenging to buy something different, clean it, cut it up, pack it only to have your kid complain about it and bring it back home to you untouched–we’ve all been there. The positive pressure of peers eating the same foods alongside them allows kids to truly enjoy the food for what it is.”
She invested time building trust. Wende focused on getting honest feedback from students and parents. They began handing out food samples and menus at the school’s open houses. The student council polled students on what they liked (and didn’t) about school food. After finding out that kids didn’t care for the salad dressings, she switched to a pricier name brand–which boosted salad bar sales.
“The best source of new ideas is the students,” says Wende. When she asked a group of seventh grade boys what they’d like to see on the menu, they asked for hard-shell tacos. She’d never considered it because of possible breakage and mess issues. But she tried it anyway–and now it’s a crowd favorite.
But probably the most important thing Wende did at her school was to change the conversation about school food. “I think there are so many misconceptions about school lunch, that it’s low quality food served grumpily,” she says. “People think it’s not up to the same standards they have at home. I want my staff and school parents to be proud of what we’re serving. I want it to feel like home and be food we would serve at home ourselves.”
And it’s working: Lunch participation is up. “Parents will come up to me and say, ‘This isn’t what I expected’,” she says. They’re grateful that they can feel good about the school lunch and not have to pack. If we can make parents’ lives easier, we’re happy to do it.”
Wende says she could never have made all these changes without her fellow “lunch ladies”. “They are the ones supporting my crazy ideas, coming up with some of their own, brainstorming new menu items with me, and actually cooking the new meals,” she says.
She also credits the school’s principal for being on board. “She allows me so much freedom and creativity and is an endless supporter of wellness ideas and constant improvement,” says Wende. “I’m so fortunate that she has given me so much room to take risks and allows so many fresh produce trucks to make multiple deliveries every week!”
As for what’s next, Wende’s plans include doing a thorough evaluation of food waste on lunch trays. She’s hoping to start composting. And of course, she wants to make even more menu items from scratch. Also on her wish list: A fun piece of new equipment–maybe a panini press.
But her biggest wish is pretty simple: For the kids to fondly remember her, the kitchen staff, and school food in general. “Everyone has memories of their childhood lunch ladies,” she says. “We want to be remembered as caring, smiling faces with good, healthy food. Even if your child is not a typical lunch-buyer, we might interact with them at some point during their school years. It’s okay with me if your child would rather have a lunch packed from home, we all have preferences regarding food, and we completely respect that. But if it falls on the floor or gets left on the school bus, I want your child to remember how we welcomed him into the lunch line with warm, yummy food when he was sad. Or how we made her a PB&J sandwich when she said she didn’t like what we were serving. The lunch ladies just want your child to have a good afternoon and be ready to learn when they return to class.”