Summer is a great time to talk about fresh, local foods and some incredible things are underway at the Van Buren Schools in northwest Ohio. The district has begun to overhaul their food service program with no playbook to work from. They’re happy to share some advice for schools who are looking to implement a similar program.

Carole Dorn-Bell talks with Jay Clark, the district’s middle school principal, and Brianna Reinhard, the food services director about the success of the program.

Since Brianna joined two years ago, the rural district has made enormous changes to its food services program, which serves more than 500 lunches per day.

“We’ve focused on fresh foods, we’ve focused on making things from scratch,” says Brianna, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition. “So not only are we purchasing things locally, we’re growing things in our building, and we’re growing things outside of our building.”

Jay says that during Brianna’s interview they saw an opportunity to reinvent their food services program. She and her team are working with local farmers and vendors to supply fresh food across the entire school district. They discovered that the district had a growing tower to supply fresh produce, and Jay was receptive in hosting it at the middle school.

“The excuse always is that kids aren’t going to like certain foods, they’re not going to like fresh produce,” Jay says. “I think we’ve found that to be almost the opposite.”

There have been some ups and downs with the overhaul. It takes some getting used to for the food services department, teachers and administrators and, of course, the kids.

Brianna and her team have learned things about each age group, like that elementary schoolers want food that looks similar to what they already know. Packaging is huge with that group, too, and they tend to like lunches that are separated on their trays. High schoolers and middle schoolers love to customize their meals and will actually opt to mix in vegetables.

“For the most part, we have definitely had just an outpouring of support and appreciation from our parents and from a lot of the students—they really look forward to their lunch,” Brianna says. “But the parents are the ones that are the most supportive and the most positive.”

Apart from Brianna’s educational background, she says there wasn’t much of a playbook coming in. They’ve been experimenting in the kitchen.

“Actually, I get a lot of ideas off of Pinterest,” she says. “A lot of our recipes we come up with are based on Weight Watchers recipes because Weight Watchers is a program that includes a lot of fruits and vegetables.”

Jay says the successful rollout has been proof that schools should not merely copy others but can be inventive with their own programs.

“When you have a board member or district administrators or teachers saying, ‘what other schools are doing this?’… If it’s a good idea, it shouldn’t matter,” he says. “Brianna is the poster child for this.”

Van Buren isn’t resting on its laurels. Now that recipes have been solidified, they will put them into a menu cycle. They plan to have better outreach and tracking to ensure nutrition requirements are met. Photos will be used to advertise the meals throughout the school and on social media. And Brianna plans to engage health-conscious athletes by providing protein and carb counts. Sometime in the future, they hope to launch high school certificate programs related to nutrition.

Carole asks Brianna what advice she has for other districts wanting to overhaul their own program. First and foremost, Brianna notes, anyone looking to make these changes has to get their staff excited about the changes.

“My staff was hugely integral in making the change,” Brianna says. “Winning them over and getting them on board was the number one way to have success at what we did.”

She says it’s also key to make contacts with local food vendors. And it’s important to simply voice your goals and needs to the staff and community.

Also, take baby steps.

“It doesn’t have to be total overhaul. You could just do one item at a time,” Brianna says. “You don’t have to completely revamp the whole food services.”

Jay adds: “There’s no parent who says I prefer my kid not eat healthy food. That’s an easy goal for everyone to get behind.”

Carole closes out the inspiring episode with a recap, noting the one problem that every district and parent shares: how to serve healthy food that kids will actually eat. It’s clear Van Buren Schools is having great success with their food service program.

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