SNA ANC FOMO (but only a little because I know what Vegas is like in July)

I’ve attend the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference (ANC) several times and always enjoyed the opportunity to learn and network with fellow School Nutrition peers.  This year I won’t be attending and I have a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out) that is quite manageable when I think about how hot it will be.  I’ve spent many a 110 degree summer day in Las Vegas and while my school nutrition and school garden peeps in that hot part of the desert of some of my favorites, it’s just too hot for me.

Meet your new #ANC best friend, ice water. Photo Credit

For those of you who work in kitchens, you know when you swing open the door of a hot convection oven and the heat blasts you in the face and curls your eyelashes back?  That’s how it feels when you step off the plane in Las Vegas in summer.

But, ANC does present an amazing opportunity for learning and networking.  I’m so excited for all my fellow Nevadans that will be attending, this year will be the greatest number of Nevadans that have attended ANC in a long time!

If you are attending here are some of the presenters I’d be sure to not miss:

Image may contain: Stefanie Dove, stripes and closeupStefanie Dove, RD, SNS

Twitter: @StefanieDoveRDN


Stefanie is the content creator and social media mastermind behind Loudoun Public Schools and has done an amazing job showing the world how great school food can be through social media.  She’ll be presenting on how to market your program and how to use social media during three sessions, details here.   Stefanie is also the proud dog mom of a sweetie pie pitbull so of course she gets first billing!

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupChef Brenda, RDN


Chef Brenda is a Registered Dietitian and has played many roles in school meals programs, from conducting administrative reviews to creating awesome recipes for school nutrition cookbooks like Idaho Department of Education’s amazing series found here.  She’ll be doing a pre-conference session and a cooking demo that takes place on Monday, July 9 at 2:15 PM – 3:15 PM in the Oceanside B, Level 2.

Chef Cyndie



Chef Cyndie is sort of like the school nutrition chef’s version of Martha Stewart.  She’s been around from the start, she’s super chill and she knows all the tricks.  She pretty much invented school chefs, her and her team conduct amazing culinary skills workshops and she is pretty darn funny.  I don’t have details on any sessions or demos she is participating in but I’m sure you can find her or her team members doing culinary demos at a variety of time slots.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeupDonna Martin RDN



If Chef Cyndie is Martha Stewart, Donna is Michelle Obama.  She’s the past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, long time school food service director of a high needs school district in Georgia and has really helped push school meals into a positive light.  I’ve never met her in person but admire her from afar. I don’t have details on any sessions she may be leading but her facebook suggests she will be there live and in person!

There will also be lots of great folks from the regulatory world like ICN and USDA, don’t forget to check out their booths and educational sessions.  The list of vendors I will miss catching up with is to long to start here but I would not miss what’s going at the Eggs in Schools or the Mushrooms in School booth.  I also hear Colyar has a big new fancy thing they’ll be rolling out, so go and introduce yourself to Matt Essner at the Colyar booth who is pretty much the nicest guy in school foodservice and he will tell you all about it!

On the social media front, the official hashtag looks to be #ANC18 so don’t forget to post some great pictures and use the hashtag so everyone else can join in!

Are you wondering why Dayle Hayes isn’t included and where she fits between Martha Stewart and Michelle Obama?  First, sadly she won’t be at ANC so you’ll have to catch her on her social media here and here.  Second, I’d put her somewhere between Annie Oakley and Amelia Earhart……



Why blog about school food?

Here’s a little bit about why I blog…

But, second to all that, I love food!

After a year of science major classes at my state land grant university I took off for Las Vegas to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas as they had a Bachelor’s degree Culinary program.  I moved to Las Vegas in late August of 2001.  In the third week of school, the September 11th terrorist attack on New York City and the Pentagon took place, which hit Las Vegas very hard.  The airport was closed down for several days and at that time Las Vegas was pretty much solely dependent on tourism to support their economy.  A huge amount of lay-offs occurred immediately and it was impossible to get a job as a 19 year old with little job experience.  I was able to get a job on campus washing dishes for a few hours a week and was lucky to have had the work.  After a tough semester in a tough town, I was accepted into Walt Disney World’s internship program and was able to work as a cook at one of their “flagship” restaurants, which was an amazing experience and taught me a lot about food.  They had a menu that changed weekly, a full time staff person who was charged solely with sourcing the best ingredients money could buy and a very liberal policy on staff meals.  I ate so much amazing food!

Image result for the california grill
The California Grill at Walt Disney World–Panoramic views plus an exhibition kitchen.  A great learning experience and I ate so, so many yummy things while hiding in a corner of the back production kitchen.  Photo Credit

While in Orlando I applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, got the first tuition bill and realized I need to go back home and take advantage of my very cost effective state university.  There were so many zeros in that first tuition bill and fresh off a minimum wage part time dishwasher gig, I just couldn’t commit to the debt.

So I went back to University of Nevada, Reno and after taking an introductory nutrition class realized that it was a great intersection between cooking and science.  After finishing my Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition my advisor suggested I go to graduate school, which was probably the single best piece of professional advice anyone has ever given me.  After their Food Science Department rejected me, the Food and Nutrition Department at Purdue University accepted me into their program which was truly amazing experience.  Their demands of students are very high and since they only take as many graduate students as they can support through teaching of research assistantships, I received a small living stipend and they cover all your tuition.  I was able to serve as a teaching assistant for Barb Mayfield, who taught me so much about communication, speaking in front of an audience and how to craft your message.  I was also able to serve as a research assistant for Dr. Mario Ferruzzi who really pushed me to think critically and work hard to produce something worth publishing.  I am so grateful for the experience I had there and really encourage anyone thinking about graduate school to pursue a full time, on-campus program.  You get fully immersed in the experience, you have no time for anything other than expanding your own mind and you’ll be surrounded by people who push you to raise yourself beyond your own expectations.  I fondly refer to it as when I “did hard time in the Midwest”.

This could be Indiana, but it looks a little hilly…. Photo Credit

Upon graduating, I competed an internship through the University of Nevada, Reno and passed my Registered Dietitian exam right away.  I started feverishly applying to jobs, thinking I would get the first job I applied to.  I had a Masters degree from a top program, I’d published my research in decent journal and I had a ton of culinary experience.  Since this was 2009 and about the worst job market since the depression, I realized after about 80 job applications how wrong I was.  At that time, there were folks with my education and credentials AND a ton of relevant job experience that couldn’t find a job.  It was a very humbling experience.

I was lucky to find a job in Seattle managing a meal program at a preschool that participated in the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).  It was great fun–creating menus, preparing food for preschoolers and working with parents struggling to figure out what to feed toddlers that just learned the word “No!”.  The preschool was in Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle and within the same building I could get fresh produce and seafood to feed the kids.  The school had a strong anti-bias curriculum and put a lot of time and effort into training staff on recognizing our own bias and privilege, something that we could all use more of.  About a 1/3 of the kids were either current foster kids or adopted out of foster care, often by same sex couples.  Those parents’ dedication to nurturing kids who had suffered from abuse or neglect gives me hope for this crazy world and taught me a lot about just how wrong people are who don’t think same sex couples should be able to adopt.

Was working here fun? Yes, yes it was! Photo Credit

Once the job market picked back up, I was able to get a job working as a contractor for the state of Nevada and then with the Nevada Department of Education working as a “Consultant”, which was a little funny since I started that job knowing almost nothing about school nutrition. Our state Child Nutrition Director at the time, Donnell Barton, told me early in that job that “Nevada is state that is smaller enough to where one person can make a difference” and I was hooked.

I used to joke about spending my first two years of that job wanting to hide under my desk, sucking my thumb while in the fetal position but it’s not that far from the truth!  The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law in December of 2010, about a month a half after I started working in Child Nutrition.  I filled a position that had been empty for about a year and was the only applicant, sadly a common scenario for these types of positions.  On my first day they got my travel arranged to go on several work trips including the USDA State Directors conference where USDA first unfolded the basic elements of getting people to transition to the new meal patterns put into place by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. It was eye opening and volatile to say the least, lots of unanswered questions at that time and high anxiety over the fate of the National School Lunch Program.  State Agency Directors are some of the smartest, strongest, take no shit group of women I have ever met.  They have some of the toughest jobs you can imagine and are stuck in the tight space school districts in their state and the federal government. They get the joy of wrestling with local, state and federal politics while sorely understaffed and underfunded.

You’ve spent time as a professional wrestler and you are an idiot savant on federal regulations?  Have I got a job at a state agency for you…….Photo Credit

But through those crazy times I got see just how important school meal programs are and realized I was in the good company of women of who believe in the power of staying strong and doing right by the kids in your community, even when you feel like curling up in the fetal position.  School meals are what our neediest kids rely on so they are well fueled and ready to learn.  Going to schools in the highest poverty areas of my state and sitting down with kids to eat a lunch was powerful experience and one that I would encourage everyone to participate in.  Every kid in America deserves a life free of hunger and school meals programs play a critical role in that future.

So why blog about school meals?  To bring light to this important program, highlight its success and maybe, just maybe convince a few people that school meals really are the most important part of the school day.

Are statewide school meal charge policies the wave of the future?

The challenges of school districts handling school meal charge policies is one that is not new.  I’ve previously covered this issue here, here and here and like many of those in the field have only really been able to conclude that this is an issue that is tough one, and there really aren’t any easy answers.  Many school districts, including my own home district, changed a long standing policy of not allowing meal charges once the policy was put out in the public spotlight. Once they allowed unlimited meal charges, the amount of debt skyrocketed.

The unpaid meal charges issue, in pictorial review.  Photo credit

However, there have recently been a few states that have either come out with a statewide meal charge policy or, in the case of Washington State, had a bill signed into law that prohibits certain practices like giving kids with meal debt an alternative meal.  Here is a quick summary of the states that now have a statewide meal charge policy or legislation in place:

New Mexico—the first state to pass such a bill, full text of the bill  has the same name as Washington’s bill and is very similar, but doesn’t require the extra steps of a school administrator contacting the parent.  It does prohibit making children do chores to may off meal debt and prohibits activities like stamping kids hands or throwing away meals already served due to lack of ability to pay.  It also includes some language around beefing up efforts to get applications completed and submitted for free meal benefits like assistance for those with low literacy levels.

Just your typically back to school paperwork packet.  Photo credit

Washington—the full text of the bill can be found here, but in summary the bill includes language to beef up efforts to get kids certified for meal benefits if they are eligible and prevents things like stamping kids hands if they owe money, or making kids do chores to work off a balance. It includes the bulk of the language in the New Mexico bill but also requires these steps to be taken once a student has charged five or more meals:

  1. Determine if the child is eligible for meal benefits
  2. Contact the household and make no fewer than two attempts to get them to fill out an application
  3. Have a Principal, Assistant Principal or school counselor contact the household and offer assistance with filling out an application, determine if there are any household issues preventing the student from having sufficient funds for school meals and offer any appropriate assistance.

Schools are prohibited from not serving a meal due to lack of funds or a negative balance for 30 days unless the student is found to be ineligible for free or reduced price meals. The bill also includes language in support of the Community Eligibility Provision and requires a plan to be put together to further explore, and report on, CEP implementation.

Texas—this very contentious bill was signed into law last June and is pretty brief, it allows for a grace period once a student starts to run a negative balance to allow more time for the issue to get sorted out.  The full text of the bill can be view here, the section on school meal debt is about 2/3rds of the way down from the top of the bill.

(Proposed but not introduced as legislation) New York—This proposal was pretty sweeping, it included breakfast after the bell, expansion of farm to school programs and food pantries on college campuses.  It didn’t get very far but it is a very progressive approach toward decreasing hunger and strengthening school meal programs.

(Introduced but not passed) Minnesota—This bill was introduced in both the state Senate and House in March of 2018 but never made it past that.  It largely reiterates the federal requirements to have a written policy on how meal debts will be handled but also proposed some changes to how state supplemental funds for school meals could be used to handle unpaid meal debts and prohibited meals already served from being throw away due to lack of ability to pay.

All in all, this a pretty wide variety of approaches and changes that ultimately were made.  Do you know if any efforts are building in your state to pursue a state level policy or legislation on school meal debt?

Time to get planting, er… planning!

While USDA just released the 2018 Farm to School Grant awardees, now is a great time to start thinking about a grant application for next year.  Do I sound like a crazy person to suggest that? Maybe. Do I sound like a crazy person and have also helped write two USDA Farm to School Grants that were awarded? Definitely!

My kind of plant. Hardy and can withstand neglect.  Photo credit

First, think about your timeline.  The USDA Farm to School Grant application is released in the fall, typically around the beginning of October.  Once the application is posted it’s open for 60 days before applications are due.  This sounds like a lot of time but it can really fly by if you need to get meetings together with involved stakeholders, school business office or fiscal staff and to allow for plenty of time for distributing drafts for proofreading or outside approvals if needed.

Second, review the types of activities that are typically funded.  You can view a list of previous awards and grant reports here.  This will give you a good idea of what types of activities are typically funded.  You’ll find it’s a pretty wide range but you want to be sure the activities you are looking at to include in the grant are 1) allowable expenses and 2) inline with the types of activities that are funded.  Even if you have the greatest idea in the world, if it’s not an allowable item it will not get funded.

Grant tip #1–don’t wait until the last minute. Photo Credit

Next, think about what kinds of information you can start gathering now and if possible, start to discuss the grant with your leadership and key grant partners.  If you can start the discussion of what types of activities to pursue and what kind of costs will go along with that, you’ll be well positioned to have a stellar application ready to go well before the deadline.

Here is a nice cheat sheet on the basic details of the grant if you need something like this to share with your school district leadership, school board or non-profit board of directors:

In general, the USDA Farm to School website is a great starting point for resources.  I’m also happy to answer any questions based on my experience, just leave me a comment below!

2018 USDA Farm to School Grantees Announced!

Farm to school is just about the greatest thing ever–it brings fresh, local foods in the school cafeteria, opens up new markets to local and oftentimes smaller farmers and supports school gardens.  But it doesn’t happen by virtue of a magical farm to school fairy.  It takes grit, a positive attitude about changing the way kids think about food and it also takes green stuff (money!).

How To Grow a Giant Cabbage
So it’s not in a school garden, but you get the idea! Photo credit

One of the biggest funders of Farm to School efforts is USDA, through their Farm to School grant program.  These grants have made some really amazing projects possible and resulted in some outstanding resources being developed that have broad applicability for a whole range of topics from procurement to how to keep school gardens going over the summer.

Washington F2S Guide
Beautiful resources like this are produced with funds from the USDA Farm to School Grant.  Click here for more info on this guide

Late last week USDA announced this year’s winners, which include these amazing projects, among many others!  A super big (cabbage growing in the Alaska summer supersized) congrats to all the awardees.  Below are some highlights, just to show a small slice of the amazing work being funded.

Detroit Public Schools Community District

Detroit, Michigan

Grant Type: Implementation; $100,000

Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) will provide farm to school activities that support the development of healthy eating habits for DPSCD children by creating a healthy food culture at the district and individual school levels. The project will work towards this goal by strengthening two farm to school activities, the Detroit School Garden Collaborative and Integrating Culinary Arts Students in School Lunch Processing.

Hawaii State Department of Education

Honolulu, Hawaii

Grant Type: Implementation; $100,000

‘Aina Pono, Hawai’i State Department of Education’s (HIDOE) farm to school pilot initiative, will bring more healthy, nutritious, fresh, and local food to school cafeterias in Hawai’i. HIDOE cafeteria staff will be trained to prepare locally sourced, scratch-cooked meals and local farmers, ranchers, and distributors will be trained on how to contract with HIDOE. This project will develop the collaborative networks required to execute a statewide farm to school initiative.

A quick video overview of their program:

Montana Department of Agriculture

Helena, Montana

Grant Type: Implementation; $99,980

The Montana Department of Agriculture will increase the procurement and distribution of local food in K-12 schools in Montana. The Montana Farm to Leadership Team has identified three geographically significant schools that are in the early stages of implementing farm to school but have limited access to local foods. By coordinating with state-level farm to school partners, including supply-chain stakeholders, and bringing together local community teams in each of the target school communities, this project will create a plan that will impact the entire State.

A beautiful recap of some of the Beef to School efforts in Montana:

Do I watch the video above when I need to revive my faith in humanity?  Yes, because it is so beautiful!  Try not to tear up when you watch it, I dare you……

“But I don’t like it…” Part II

What was your child’s first word?  Often the response is “momma”, “dadda” or “ball”.  Maybe something exotic like “kitty” for those with a feline friend in the household.  But what’s the first word typically used at the dinner table? “No!”, usually uttered by a preschooler that has just learned the power of that word.

Frolicking through the leaves? Yes.  Agreeing to try new foods? Maybe. Photo Credit

Mealtimes can be stressful (especially for parents of preschoolers), and that stress usually centers around a parent trying to coax a child into doing something they don’t want to–ie eating something they don’t want to, stop playing with their food or to sit still during a meal.   Does this sound familiar?  Did you have an infant that was a willing and easy eater, then a toddler that would try new foods and eat vegetables, then a preschooler that just says “no” to everything but bread and milk?

To break this behavior down a bit, let’s look at some of the developmental changes going on in a preschooler.  First, they are starting to get a little taste of independence, they are getting a little bit of space from parents and they are also learning novel words—specifically the word “no”.  They often want to test those out in combination and using the word no in combination with finding some newfound independence is often exercised at the dinner table.  It’s also worth noting that preschoolers don’t often get a lot of opportunities to have control over things and saying “no” at the dinner table is a place where they have can that control.

Preschoolers love exploring some freedom! Photo credit

Does this mean a preschooler is a demon hell bent on making everyone’s dinner time miserable?  Absolutely not.  These behaviors present a fantastic opportunity to support healthy eating behaviors from an early age.  Children actually do an amazing job self-regulating food intake, as maddening as it can be observe, and letting preschoolers have some decision making authority over their food intake is a critical first step towards a lifelong healthy relationship with food.

So how does this work in real life?

First, you may need to re-examine your own expectations around your child’s eating behaviors.  The infant/toddler days of spooning food into the “hungry baby bird” mouth have past and are now replaced with a preschooler eager to make some decisions for themselves.  I’ve often heard a saying that “kids will eat one meal, play with one meal and ignore the third all together”.  I’ve found this to be a pretty sound explanation of preschool eating behaviors.  It is also very common for preschoolers to go through what’s called a “food jag”, when kids want to eat the exact same thing for weeks on end.  It’s also not uncommon for there to be natural fluctuations in appetite.  It’s okay for kids to have variations in the amount of food they eat.

A nicely staged photo that’s far from reality but nice to look at. Photo credit

While not new, there some simple strategies that can be employed at mealtimes that work well with the developmental stage of a preschooler.  The strategies below are loosely based on the work on Ellyn Satter.  She wrote a ground breaking book, “how to get your kid to eat without eating too much” was published in 1987 but the strategies she outlines stand the test of time.  If you want to learn more, I highly suggest buying her book.  It’s a quick read with practical strategies that everyone can use.  For the reader who wants some brevity, here are the basics:

  1. Set a good example. While they are exploring boundaries and new experiences, they also mimic what they see.  Do you scarf something down while hovering over the kitchen sink or eat while milling about the kitchen?  Sit down at the table with your family and use some utensils.  Let the mimicry commence.
  2. Plan meals ahead of time, and shop accordingly. When planning meals, include at least one thing you know will be a readily accepted option.  This could be a starchy component like bread or potatoes, and then rounded out with other options like protein rich foods or vegetables.  Avoid a state of “hangry” in both the meal preparer and the meal participants by spending time at least once a week to plan for meals and conduct the grocery shopping to support those meals.
  3. Let kids serve themselves when developmentally appropriate and with positive coaching. It can take up to 15 times for child to see a food before they will accept it, so start that positive exposure and be patient until confidence with new foods develop.
  4. STAY POSITIVE, but not pushy. You will want to make your kid eat their vegetables.  Recognize the urge then just let it go.  “Would you like to try some______?”. Honor a no thank you.
  5. No short order cookery. It’s the caregivers responsibility to get a balanced meal on the table.  It’s the child’s responsibility to make food choices once they are developmentally able.  Giving kids a choice over options to include in the meal is also good, “should we have broccoli or carrots?”, but steer clear of “what do you want for dinner?” for younger kids.  It’s too open ended and will likely yield a choice you don’t endorse.
  6. Involve kids in food preparation. It’s takes time. It makes a mess. But kids who have some ownership are more likely to eat the foods offered.  You can start with easy stuff like basic mixing and stirring things that aren’t hot, tearing up things like lettuce leaves or simple tasks like putting toppings on a pizza.   You can get “safety” kitchen equipment like knives, I’ve also had success giving kids small paring knives and just supervising closely.
  7. Be patient. Easier said then done, right?  Seriously though, kids do a great job of regulating their own calorie intake.  As adults, we push them to override that internal regulator by forcing them to eat when they aren’t hungry and using meal times to reinforce a power dynamic.  Take a deep breath, do some positive coaching and just let it be.

Do you have challenges at meal times?  Tell me about them and let’s see what we can do to improve the situation!

“I don’t like it…..” Part I

How many times have you heard that phrase about food voiced by a child?  Almost always followed with “but have you tried it?” from an adult.  How do these food dislikes get shaped and how can we get kids to be more open to trying new foods?

First, if I had an easy answer to this question I wouldn’t need a job because I would be busy speaking about that easy answer to parents all across the globe!  As a Dietitian this is the single most common question I get from any parent and I have many parents tell me that feeding their kid is the single most stressful part of being a parent.  It plagues parents of all backgrounds and demographics. And it’s a bit of a complicated one to answer.  There are a lot of factors involved and a lot of variability between children.

Just the average mom, trying to feed their kid a healthy meal. Photo Credit

As a starting point, let’s cover a basic understanding of some physiology and the role it plays in food choice.  Some of our food preference may start in utero, according to this article.

Some taste preferences and aversions (e.g. liking for sweet, salty and umami; disliking for bitter) are innately organized, although early experiences can modify their expression. In utero events may impact on later taste and flavor preferences and modulate intake of nutrients. Both before and after birth, humans are exposed to a bewildering variety of flavors that influence subsequent liking and choice. Fetuses are exposed to flavors in amniotic fluid modulating preferences later in life and flavor learning continues after birth. Experience with flavors that are bitter, sour or have umami characteristics, as well as volatile flavors such as carrot and garlic, occurs through flavorings in breast milk, infant formula and early foods.

There is also some evidence to suggest that we have more taste buds when we are first born than later on in life.  Having more taste buds in places like the roof of your mouth may also explain why some kids shy away from strongly favor foods in favor of foods like bread and crackers that are rather plain tasting (and easy to chew).  I have been know to previously describe the preschooler food preference towards anything flat, tan colored and carb laden……

Flat, tan and just carbs? Preschooler dream food indeed! Photo Credit

The physiology of the tongue also has an impact on food choice.  The human tongue is a muscle and serves a lot of functions, one of which is to help move food around your mouth while you chew.  While it’s so innate we don’t really notice as an adult, your tongue plays and important role in chewing.  Certain foods, like salad greens take quite a bit of effort on the part of your tongue to get chewed up adequately.  Think about eating a grilled steak or grilled chicken.  While delicious, you really have to use your jaw muscles to get it chewed adequately.  For kids that are still developing muscle strength in these areas, some foods can be hard chew and may be avoided because of that.

What does this mean for parents?  Well, there’s not much we can do about the in utero part!  But, as far as tastebuds and chewing muscle strength goes, it may help to be mindful of serving foods that match up with your child’s chewing capabilities.  For preschoolers, this may mean serving grounds meats, or meats that have been cooked using a longer, moist cooking method like a crock pot.  Vegetables that are light steamed may be easier to chew than raw vegetables but will still retain their color and bit of crispness.  Even tossing veggies like broccoli and carrots into boiling water for a few minutes can help soften them just a bit while still staying brightly colored and limit the off smells of vegetables that are well cooked.

Up next, the human behavior side of eating!  What happens when the word “no” gets discovered by your preschooler and brought to the dinner table…….