U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean visited Boise’s Whitney Elementary School last week to celebrate National School Lunch Week.
Four students escorted an entourage of adults to their cafeteria to eat chicken sandwiches with wheat buns, local Idaho potato wedges and fresh apple slices. National school lunch week celebrates good food choices and the many professionals who help kids eat healthy.
Dean greeted food professionals from the Boise School District, thanking them for the daily work they do to serve children. One of those professionals was Christy Smith, the food and nutrition services supervisor for the district. Smith organizes 13,000 meals per day at 46 sites, planning menus, buying food and supervising 130 employees.
Articulating the stereotypical ideas about school lunch, Smith cited SNL’s “Lunch Lady Land,” which has 7.7 million views on YouTube. “Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of,” Adam Sandler sings, “just know everything is doin’; fine down here in, Lunch Lady Land.”
Smith, however, knows exactly what’s in her food. “We have to meet (the USDA)’s strict nutrition guidelines (for) what needs to be… served or offered to students. We have to offer all the food groups in certain proportions based on grades,” she said. This comes down to things like calculating the exact volume of a scoop of rice and measuring sodium content.
It also means Smith has to find specialized products that work for her meals. She explained, “A hamburger bun has to meet certain requirements or grain equivalents …so if I’m only going to serve a hamburger bun as the grain component for lunch … it has to have a certain amount of whole grain flour in it that meets that specification.” All of this must be balanced with the fact that Smith’s average customer is 10 years old. She has to consider how to make nutritious foods that kids “are interested in eating.”
Some examples of recent meals in the Boise district include teriyaki chicken drumsticks with oranges and broccoli, breakfast sandwiches with bananas and rosemary potatoes and macaroni and cheese with fresh cantaloupe and garden salad.
The four student escorts described their enthusiasm for school lunch. Smith explained it’s something she sees every day. “For many of them it’s the highlight of their day. They’re so excited to eat lunch…and it’s really fun to interface with them.”
Smith also shops locally, participating in the USDA’s Farm to School program, which encourages schools to partner with local farmers, ranchers and producers as much as possible and provide students with hands-on experiences like gardening, to understand where their food comes from.
Dean emphasized the importance of nutritious school food for students, explaining that sometimes those meals are the most nutritious, or only meals they get in a day. Though Smith says it can be challenging to meet guidelines, it’s worth it. “The child feeding program through the USDA is a very large and impactful program for the nutrition of children. And it’s effective. I feel like our responsibility is to show kids what [nutritious food] can taste like and keep exposing them over and over and over again to what good nutrition looks like.”
Students not only get nutritious food but also interact with caring food service professionals. While speaking with Dean, assistant manager Andrea Pickering became emotional describing her love for the students.
“While the job is demanding, we have a team of deeply caring individuals who all have a passion for feeding these kids. Their smiles are the reason I get up and go to work.” Smith affirmed the commitment of her employees to the students. “The service staff are some of the few in the school that see almost every kid every day. So we try to give them a little smile….we try to make that (interaction) really special. And my team, they love it.”
Among the programs aimed at helping students is the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program, which provides an afternoon snack at lower income schools. This exposes students to nutritious foods they may not have experienced, and it also includes a short educational activity in conjunction with their snack.
“School food is something that needs to be valued and prioritized. This is important work. Kids need good food to do the hard work of learning,” Smith said.
Katie McGuire is a contributing reporter for EdNews. She lives in Meridian with her husband and their two children. She has a bachelor’s degree in secondary education social science teaching from Brigham Young University and a master’s in history from Kent State University.