The best school meal I ever ate

I get asked this question quite a bit and it’s tough one, because I have eaten a LOT of amazing school meals.  While school lunch often gets a bad wrap, and there is certainly more ground to cover, there are a lot of school meal programs around the nation pumping out really nice meals.

The ability to produce a quality meal that appeals to a broad audience is even more remarkable given the constraints school meals face.  After paying for labor and facility costs most school districts only have about a dollar to spend on the food that goes on the tray, and with that dollar they have to provide a cup of milk, a serving each of a fruit and vegetable, a grain and protein of some sort.  All that with only a dollar!

On top of the budget constraints, they typically have to serve a few hundred meals in an hour or so.  In some of the large urban school districts it isn’t uncommon for a cafeteria to serve 500 or more meals in less than an hour.  And those large urban school districts aren’t know for expansive modern kitchens.  I’ve been in school cafeterias producing that kind volume in kitchens not much bigger than my home kitchen.  And let me tell you, blogging and working in school food has not afforded me the expansive kitchen of my dreams….

But despite all that, I’ve eaten these amazing meals, in no particular order:

  1. Salad bars—I’ve had so many great meals from a school salad bar. Spring mix, fresh veggies, legumes like chickpeas, garlic hummus, even guacamole.  Bonus points for cafeterias that make their own lowfat ranch dressing, which I love and I will not apologize for that!
  2. A freshly cooked, straight from the griddle hamburger from a brand new, top of the line, shiny school food truck. As close to In and Out one can get on a whole grain bun!
  3. Entrée salads—I’m talking southwestern style chicken salads with black beans, corn salsa, some shredded cheese and maybe even some tortilla chips, Asian chicken salad with crisp romaine, crunchy noodles and a spicy dressing, the tried and true ceaser, the list goes on and on……
  4. Build your own deli sandwiches—I love a good deli sandwich, and while not every school has the space or equipment to facilitate a “build your own” kind of meal, these are a huge hit.
  5. BBQ Chicken Flatbread, also from a brand new, top of the line, shiny school food truck.

Honorable mention: I ate one of the most amazing breakfast burritos ever (and I’ve eaten a lot of breakfast burritos) from the school cafeteria in Eureka, Nevada.  Freshly scrambled eggs, some diced ham and cheese.  On a chilly morning, it was a real game changer.  Sadly, I did not document the moment with a picture.

What about you, what’s the best school meal you ever ate?


National Farm to Cafeteria Conference FOMO (Fear of missing out)

I’ve already extolled the virtues of Farm to school, from teaching kids where their food comes from to getting kids pumped to eat green stuff, it’s one amazing thing.  I’ve also shared a bit about the National Farm to School Network and the critical role they play in supporting the Farm to School Network in each state, all across the nation.  Basically, I’m a huge fan.

If this can be grown in a school garden in the Las Vegas desert, school gardens are possible anywhere.

The National Farm to School Network is also a relatively newly formed organization that started very small and has continued to grow buy leaps and bounds every year.  According to the website:

“National Farm to School Network was launched in 2007 by a collaborative of more than 30 organizations seeking to shape the burgeoning farm to school movement. Initially led by staff from the Community Food Security Coalition and the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College. National Farm to School Network is now a project of the Tides Center.”

They now have nine full time staff members, two fellows and three interns–and boy do they accomplish a lot with a small amount of staff, especially for a National organization!  In addition to supporting the state leads in all 50 states, Farm to Preschool and Native Communities programs, they maintain an amazing resource library on their website and every other year put on the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference.

This conference holds a near and dear spot in my heart.  It provided me my first opportunity to speak at a national conference and provided me the opportunity to meet some of my all time favorite school food service professionals.  People doing amazing things like these fine folks:

Dayle Hayes blazing a path forward, as per the usual

Dayle Hayes of “School Meals that Rock” fame—Dayle is my all time school food hero and one amazing lady.  She tours the country giving inspirational speeches, teaching people how to use social media to share their school food success and writes about all what’s good in school meals.  She also does career counseling on the side if you ask really nicely…..

Bertrand Weber with Minneapolis Public Schools—Bertrand is a classically trained chef turned School Food Service Director who locally sources all sorts of menu items for school meals, from apples to turkey roasts to purple daikon radish.  Check out their amazing website with all the details here.

Betti Wiggins—Betti was formerly the School Foodservice Director of Detroit Public Schools, now at Houston ISD, who during her tenure at Detroit started a Farm (and got a school tractor!) that grows items like blueberries to be served in school meals.  The school farm also provide job training for students with development disabilities.  She is one inspiring lady who isn’t afraid to tell a whole room of people to not let anything hold you back when you are doing what’s right for kids.  Her words have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because there is so much truth and honesty in them.  She is fearless and it’s infectious.

In addition to the three people mentioned above, being a former Nevada State Lead allowed me the opportunity to meet other amazing state leads from the Western Region who provided an robust network for idea sharing, support and a LOT of laughs at conferences and gatherings.  You can find out who your state leads is here and if you have any Farm to School questions or don’t know where to start, they are the perfect contact to get you headed in the right direction.

Montana Farm to School State Lead and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, Aubree Roth

By now I’m sure you can see why I have the FOMO over missing out on this great conference that is happening right now! You can follow what’s going on over the next few days via social media through this twitter and Instagram handle:


Do you want to attend the next National Farm to Cafeteria Conference? If so, sign up to get notification for the next conference dates and locations, as well as more National Farm to Network news at

I hope to see you there!


All the llama (chocolate milk) drama

There is a lot of milk related drama in school nutrition.  Drama over whether or not kids should have to take it with their meal, whether flavored milks like chocolate milk should be allowed and how to accommodate kids who are lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy.  And I’m not even going to mention the drama of the purchasing process for supplying milk to schools.

Spoiler alert: I love chocolate milk, especially this local to me choco-licous whole milk from Sand Hill Dairy

But the drama of flavored milks in school in something that I think needs to be talked about a bit more.  Much like school wellness, there are some pretty strong feelings in either side.  Some are concerned about the amount of sugar in kids diets.  That’s a fair concern, the average American child consumes a little over 18 teaspoons, or about 75 grams, of sugar per day.

It’s also important to distinguish better natural sugars and added sugars.  Here’s a nice run down from Registered Dietitian Dana Angelo White:

Added Sugars

Whether it’s run-of-the-mill granulated white sugar, high fructose corn syrup or something that sounds fancier, such as turbinado or raw sugar – these are all sweeteners. These ingredients are added to foods as they are processed or prepared. The distinct flavor and degree of sweetness will vary, but no matter which type you’re dealing with, these sweeteners are a pure source of carbohydrate and have about 15 calories per teaspoon. When hefty doses of these types of added sugars are eaten, it can lead to weight gain and poorly controlled blood sugar levels.

The most significant sources of added sugar in the American diet are baked goods, candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and energy drinks.

Natural Sugars

Despite what food marketers might lead you to believe, there are only 2 forms of natural sugars – the kind found in milk (lactose) and the kind found in fruit (fructose). These types of sugar are also purely carbohydrates but from a nutritional standpoint, the food sources in which they are found have a lot more to offer. Milk and fruit provide other important nutrients like protein, vitamin D, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C and fiber – you’ll be hard pressed to find any of these nutrients in candy, cookies and soft drinks. As an additional bonus, fiber and protein take longer to digest, causing a less dramatic spike in blood sugar. They also make you feel fuller for longer, providing a greater satiety value.

So how does milk fit into that?  Well, as mentioned above milk had naturally occurring sugar (lactose).  It’s the same sugar that causes problems for those who are lactose intolerant, when you lack the enzyme to digest lactose it heads to your large intesting undigested where it then ferments and the byproduct of fermentation—gas—has some less then pleasant effects when it gets produced in your large intestine.

Milk has 12 grams of naturally occurring sugar per cup, and a one cup serving size is typical for school meals.  The amount of sugar flavored milk adds depends on the formulation used but most flavored milks like “truMoo” made by Dean foods, have 6 grams of added sugar.  Compared to the average daily intake of 74 grams, the added six grams of sugar in chocolate milk isn’t a lot.  And with that milk has a lot of other nutrients kids don’t get enough of like calcium, potassium and B-12.  Calcium is especially important during the critical bone density building years the two years around peak puberty.  Calcium is critical for your body to send signals between cells and when you don’t have enough calcium to support that your body robs calcium from your bones.  And when that happens over the long term your bones start looking more like swiss cheese that concrete, also known as osteoporosis.

Just me cheesin’ with local dairyman and maker of the world best chocolate milk, Sand Hill Dairy’s own Isidro Alves!

So do I think chocolate milk should be offered in schools?  Yes, I do.  Think 6 grams of added sugar is drop in the bucket and it worth it considering all the other nutrients that come along with that added sugar.

I also think there are things we can do to “nudge” kids towards choosing plain milk instead of chocolate like placing it in the front of the milk cooler and other more easily reached places that make plain milk the easy choice.  One thing everyone can agree on is that kids get too much added sugar in their diets and we need to keep a sharp eye on these kinds of dilemmas.

What about you, do you think we should allow chocolate milk in schools?



What’s a Farm Bill?

First, it’s not a bill you would receive from a farm.  Well, it might be but not in this context…

The Farm Bill is a huge piece of legislation that is currently making it’s way through Congress.  It’s bill with a very big price tag, ($867 billion over the next ten years according to the Congressional Budget Office) and it provides the funding for a huge array of programs.  The largest of which is the SNAP program, formerly known as Food Stamps.  The Farm Bill only comes up very 5 years so any changes made in the bill can have long term impacts and remediating any negative consequence of the bill, intentional or otherwise, are very difficult to fix if possible at all.

The sun will be setting on this Farm Bill before we know it! Photo Credit

While the Child Nutrition Rauthorization is the legislation that authorizes the National School Lunch Program, and is separate from the Farm Bill, there could still be major impacts to school meal programs as a result of the Farm Bill. Here are the most significant impacts to school meals that could come from the current version of the Farm Bill:

  1. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program This program has some great research supporting it’s intended purpose of kids eating more fruits and vegetables and getting that repeat exposure to fruits and vegetables to increase the likelihood they eat them more in the future.  Right now it looks like funding levels for this program will be maintained and cuts to the program have not been discussed as far as I can tell.
  2. Impacts to farmers, especially smaller farmers or organic farmers. The current version of the bill cuts the $58 million Organic cost share program which helps to off set some the costs of getting and maintain organic certification.  Most schools buying local produce for school meals work with smaller farmers so this could have a big impact on them as most small farmers struggle to make a profit.

Other bloggers are doing some great work to keep tabs on how the Farm Bill is changing as it goes through the legislative process which you can access here:

What parts of the Farm Bill are you concerned about it?  Tell me in the comment box below!

Spaghetti Squash in a Filing Cabinet

While interviewing a local Communities in Schools of Western Nevada (CIS) staff member, Elisha, about a student digging through a trash can to find their dinner, I learned a lot about the struggles some families experience trying to put enough food on the table.  For many of the kids at Proctor Hug High School that Elisha works with, the responsibility of shopping for and preparing food falls on them.  Parents may be busy working several low wage jobs, struggling with healthcare issues and or just don’t have access to transportation or resources to put food on the table.

This is not a place I think anyone should have to go to find their dinner.  Photo Credit

To try to help ease that burden, the CIS team started a food pantry.  At first, they started out seeing 12 kids a month, working out of a filing cabinet.  Now, they provide food for 160-200 kids a month, with a line down the hallway of parents also hoping to get assistance with meeting their food needs.

Administering the pantry isn’t a small job, but it has a big payoff for the families that rely on this type of food assistance to keep dinner on the table.  While there has been a lot of significant outreach efforts in Northern Nevada to boost participation in SNAP, some families may not apply for the benefit for several reasons.  First, it’s a lengthy application process that has an uncertain result.  Second, some families worry about how a SNAP application could impact their immigration status.  While you have to be a citizen to receive benefits, children who are citizens and therefore eligible for SNAP may have parents with less secure immigration status and in the current political climate, nobody wants to take any chances.

Many of the families that Elisha sees at the pantry have recently lost a job and don’t know where to go to access the resources available locally.  The pantry helps keep a family fed while parents look for employment or receive any benefits they may be eligible for.  The CIS staff also uses an automated phone call to remind parents when the pantry will be available, which is currently every Monday and Friday, while also letting the kids know they work with to come by that day to get help with food if they need it.

Hug High CIS Team
The amazing CIS Hug High School team, Elisha Harris (L) and Breanna Gianapoulos (R) with Executive Director Auburn Harrison in the middle.  And yes, all carpets in Nevada look like that.

In addition to CIS organizing the pantry program and working with families to get assistance to those who need it the most, the weekly food pantry is also made possible by a partnership with Food Bank of Northern Nevada, a local food bank that has been providing food assistance in this community since 1983.  Through federal programs like The Emergency Food Assistance Program (a federal USDA Foods program) and with the support of donations from the community, they provide the food to stock the pantry.  The Food Bank of Northern Nevada has also made some huge strides in getting more fresh food distributed through pantries and things like spaghetti squash show up along with recipes cards made by CIS staff to provide some ideas on how to prepare such a thing.

This looks healthy, how does one cook it? Photo Credit

“Providing food to families that are in crisis can really help stabilize the whole household. When food and resources are scarce, some students have to miss out on school to get to food pantry across town to help feed the family”, says Elisha.

And while this is an amazing benefit that has a clear impact on the neediest of families, funding reductions impact how much food can be distributed.  Budget cuts at the federal level could impact the amount of food that can be distributed through programs like Emergency Food Assistance Program and local donations have a big impact on organizations like Food Bank of Northern Nevada and CIS, who rely on fundraising to be able to provide families with basic services like food assistance.

The good news is that every little donation helps, and it’s easy to see the benefit your dollars have on awesome organizations like these.  I skipped my morning latte this week and gave each organization $10.

Who wants to join me in giving up a tiny perk for these two organizations that have a huge impact on families? You can donate to CIS by clicking here and to Food Bank of Northern Nevada by clicking here.

More green stuff for everyone!

Farm to School programs have a really great track record of gettin’ kids hooked on green stuff.  School gardens are the ultimate incubator for future healthy eaters and veggie experimenters.  They are a powerful force in generating kids who put the broccoli in their mouths instead of into a trash can.

Star edited
Dignified women always eat their greens.  Just ask this lady. Kids? Not so much.

But getting kids pumped up over eating some fresh fruits and veggies isn’t the only benefit of robust farm to school programs.  In addition to school gardens, a lot of work has been put towards getting more locally grown items into the school cafeteria.  This is typically referred to as the “procurement” aspect of the Farm to School triad.  And a science it is, the federal government has a lot of do’s and don’ts when it comes to how to go about buying things, largely to protect taxpayers dollars, but it can really throw a wrench in things.

But once those procurement rules barriers are overcome, it can have an even “greener” effect on the local economy. According to the National Farm to School Network:

Each dollar invested in farm to school stimulates an additional $0.60-$2.16 of local economic activity, in one case resulting in $1.4 million overall contribution to the state.

And if more money for the local economy isn’t enough:

Farm to School programs have resulted in creation and maintenance of jobs in the community and in the state; for every job created by school districts purchasing local foods, additional economic activity creates another 1.67 jobs.

In addition to injecting money and jobs into the local economy, Farm to School programs have also been shown to help with school meal programs’ bottom line.  Many school districts have school meal programs that run deeply in the red, and increasing student participation can help bring in more revenue and move that bottom line closer to the black, which allows local education dollars to be used for things like decreasing student teacher ratios and buying textbooks.

This green doesn’t grow on a tree. But you do need to it to buy textbooks.  Photo credit

Further research shows that Farm to School programs resulted in an increase in student meal participation from 3 percent to 16 percent (average +9 percent), generating increased revenue for schools through meal programs.

Research out of the Illinois Public Health Institute also showed similar results from Farm to School programs:

In each locale studied, local food trade increased, resulting in greater sales for selected farmers, more widespread local food commerce, greater visibility for local foods and local farmers, and marginally higher employment, not only for growers but also within distribution systems.

The process of local food procurement itself resulted in job creation. In certain cases, the collaboration among farmers, institutional food buyers, and intermediaries led to the creation of new products, such as processed produce (cut carrots) and premade foods (like soup) that had not previously been offered for sale.

So kids eat healthier and local economies grow stronger? Green stuff all around!

School Foodie

Talking about school food gets a common response.




And when I ask the person saying that when the last time they actually saw a school meal, most can’t remember seeing one past their own high school graduation.  School food has changed, and it’s changed for the better.

Now, I’m not saying there isn’t still work to do but what I am saying is that there is some really good stuff out there and it should be celebrated.  School meals play a vital role in ensuring kids are well nourished and ready to learn, and they play an even more important role in the lives of the kids in our communities who need them the most.

Just your typical school lunch in Nye County, Nevada

Let’s start with salad bars.  I have seen with my very own two eyes some of the most appealing salad bars ever in schools.  I’ve seen fresh spring mix greens, cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans, celery, broccoli, carrots and kale.  All this, I have seen in big cities, little cities and even in the tiny, tiniest town of Gabbs, Nevada.  Gabbs is so small one family moved away and they didn’t have enough kids to field a high school basketball team.  You only need 12 people for a basketball team!

The marker is Gabbs.  What’s close to that you ask? Nothing. Photo credit: Google maps

But what they do have is one amazing school food service director and she figured out a way to get a salad bar at even her tinest school in the middle of nowhere.  And if that’s not a testament to the amazing people who work in school food, I don’t know what is.

What else has been going on in school food?

All this:

Fresh, healthy (and even sometimes local) foods are making their way to lunch trays all over the country.  Service models beyond just salad bars are happening too, the food truck craze is hitting school food bringing a fun, outdoor experience to getting kids fed.

A food truck serving summer food (like school lunch but in the summer in high needs areas) you say? Yes, in no place other than Pahrump Nevada.


Manhantan lunch.png
This school lunch was served at Manhattan, Montana.  It’s slightly bigger than Gabbs, but only by about 1,000 people.  Their basketball team can probably survive one family moving away, but not much more than that. Photo credit

So before you go to that “eww” in your head the next time you hear someone talk about school meals, do a little research.  If you want to learn more, head on over to School Meals that Rock on Facebook and Instagram.  The most beautiful meals from all across the country, from big cities to tiny towns, are highlighted and celebrated for the amazing things they are.

Do you have a school meal picture to share?  If so, post in the comments below.