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Training the Teachers in Our Biggest Classrooms

Maple Avenue Market Farm co-owner Sara Guerre invited students to learn about their local farmers, during a National School Lunch Week event at Nottingham Elementary School in Arlington, VA

Maple Avenue Market Farm co-owner Sara Guerre invited students to learn about their local farmers, during a National School Lunch Week event at Nottingham Elementary School in Arlington, VA, on Wednesday, October 12, 2011. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Bridgette Matthews is a Lead Mentor for USDA’s Team Up for Nutrition Success Initiative, which provides school food authorities with tailored technical assistance and training to successfully implement the school meal patterns.  Here, Bridgette discusses the importance of training for school nutrition staff.  A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the majority of school food service directors believe their staffs need more training to maximize the benefits of the new nutrition standards.  Bridgette’s examples demonstrate how proper training can not only help staff meet the new standards, but also prepare them to teach students about making healthy choices.

By Bridgette Matthews, School Nutrition Director for Elbert County Schools, Georgia

Like their fellow educators down the hall, the school nutrition professionals I work with must be well-prepared to answer students’ tough questions. That’s why staff training and development are crucial parts of our school meal program—for me as the director and for our whole team.

Nutrition training is particularly important for my front-line servers and cashiers, because they’re the ones who talk with students the most each day. How they respond to even a seemingly minor question—such as “Why doesn’t this sandwich have pickles?”—can affect children’s choices and their overall impression of our program.

Improving staff training has been a frequent topic in my work with USDA’s Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative. Team Up pairs school nutrition directors facing challenges in their program with peer mentors who have overcome these obstacles in similar school districts. As a Team Up mentor, one of my main tasks is to empower others, helping them find and address the root cause of each challenge. If a director is struggling, say, with staff members whose negativity toward the menu is rubbing off on the kids they serve, we may work on a concrete and time-bound action plan for more staff development.

In my own district, my team and I talk a lot about the science behind the healthier menus we’ve introduced and how to communicate the relevant nutritional lessons to kids. One of the biggest topics for us right now is sodium. When a child asks “Why doesn’t this sandwich have pickles?” the answer should never just be “because Bridgette made the menu that way.”

We’ve worked to ensure that everyone on our team is comfortable explaining the health benefits of avoiding excess salt: how too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, how that can cause kidney problems, which in turn could lead to serious chronic conditions. Then, we go to the next step and discuss good nutrition in the context of our actual menus.

Recently, we analyzed the sodium content in one of our traditional lunches: a ham sandwich with lettuce, tomato and pickles; baked potato chips; carrots with a little ranch dressing; fruit; and chocolate milk. Previously, this meal was often considered one of our healthier options, being low in fat and calories. But when we tallied up the sodium content, the total came out to 1,993 milligrams—nearly the recommended maximum amount for an entire day! Through this exercise, my staff was able to see exactly why we decided to leave off the pickles from our deli sandwiches—close to 20 percent of the sodium in that meal came from just one ounce of pickles – and use an alternative like low sodium honey mustard or roasted red peppers to boost the sandwich’s flavor.

We apply this same concept when adding items to our menu, too, helping our students learn about balancing their choices over the course of a day. Here in the Deep South, our kids love biscuits with breakfast; historically, our meal participation rate was always highest on biscuit day. So, we worked out a way to make them a daily option in our new Biscuit Bistro. And thanks to our staff training sessions, my team can explain to our kids why it’s a healthier choice to balance out the sodium in biscuits by pairing it with white milk rather than chocolate milk.

In my own career, I’ve been fortunate to learn from amazing mentors who never let me forget that thriving school nutrition programs require a true team effort. Initiatives like Team Up capture that spirit and remind me why I love this job. Helping others grow, learn and succeed is an endless reward, whether you’re working with a first grader or a school nutrition peer halfway across the country.

For more information on planning menus that maximize flavor without excess sodium, visit USDA’s What’s Shaking? website.

March is National Nutrition Month. Throughout the month, USDA will be highlighting results of our efforts to improve access to safe, healthy food for all Americans and supporting the health of our next generation.

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