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Jessica Johnson may be new to her position as the Food Service Director for Sycamore School District in Cincinnati but she is no novice when it comes to finding innovative ideas to keep her students and staff smiling. Since Johnson started her job just more than one year ago, she has had to work quickly to change her menus and vending machines to keep up with Ohio’s Senate Bill 210 (which requires the adoption of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Nutrition Guidelines) as well as the new USDA school meal regulations.

Johnson began this effort last year by adding more fruits and vegetables at every grade level, removing all unhealthy products from the vending machines, stopping the sale of unhealthy desserts and addressing the access to French fries in the high school. Previously the students could choose the fries as part of the reimbursable lunch every day and she made the change to having them available as an a la carte item only once per week. All of these actions helped prepare for the next round of changes.

Last summer, Johnson received the new USDA school meal nutrition regulations. Although she admits that more time for food service staff to prepare and for manufacturers to reformulate products would have been better, Johnson believes that having all of these new guidelines to follow has helped ease the transition to healthier foods in her schools. “This really was good timing for me because I wanted to make these kinds of changes anyways but having the law behind you makes it easier.” She said there were also some parents that had been pushing for healthier meals in the district so she felt she had support from various stakeholders.

Johnson, however, was cognizant of not wanting to just take things away from the students, especially in the middle schools where these changes were going to be felt the hardest. “I really wanted to encourage our 7th and 8th graders to see beyond burgers and cookies. I thought that adding a deli bar with made-to -order sandwiches would be giving them something new and exciting while providing a complete, reimbursable meal.” Students now can make their own subs with whole grain breads, unlimited vegetable toppings and low-fat sauce options. They take a side of fruit and milk and enjoy!

Although there was a dip in meal participation at the beginning of the year, Johnson said that was to be expected as it was difficult to get products in; manufacturers struggled with assessing the demand and stocking new items. “That causes turmoil because we don’t know what we will have and the kids don’t know what we will have. The selection was more limited so they started bringing their lunch from home more. But now that we are stable and they see what we have to offer, they are coming back. Our staff participation is also up- we used to have one or two staff members purchase a lunch each day, now it is more like 20 on average.”

Now that the district has finished its six-cent certification, the process in which schools document compliance with the new meal patterns in order to collect an additional six cents for every meal, Johnson is ready to work on increasing student buy-in. She said the students are getting used to more wraps and salads and they enjoy a weekly taco bar. Johnson has rearranged the serving areas to put the fresh fruits up at the front and the less healthy a la carte items back in the corner. She has changed the packaging they use from a foggier plastic and foam to a clear plastic so that students can really see what they are getting. She holds food focus groups with older students and she has a stamp of “student approval” she uses to promote items that received positive feedback. Younger students get to try new items and circle “Yum” or “No, thanks” on a piece of paper.

“What I’ve decided in this process,” said Johnson, “is that it was a lot of work to pull it together over the summer and our August and September menus were rough because we were trying to wrap our heads around it. But now we have made it to the other side and we are in a good place. I think it is good to have national standards so that everyone can move towards healthier meals. And it has forced me to be more creative in menu design and makes kids think outside the box and try new things.”

Tips from Jessica Johnson on a Successful School Lunch Program

1)     Let the kids try it and market it for you. Peer pressure works!

2)     Work with the high school newspaper to write about new guidelines and options.

3)     Have food service staff present at meal times to help address student questions and concerns.

4)     Be creative with sauces! A fruit sauce can add a lot of flavor to a grilled chicken sandwich.

5)     Meet with your food brokers/distributors and ask them how other schools are using their products to get ideas.

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