Salem High School student Evid Hernandez loves the chicken tacos with fresh produce toppings that are served daily on one side of the first-floor cafeteria. “It’s my favorite food and I eat it every day!” she says. Beef and chicken tacos are just one of six delicious meals with fresh ingredients offered daily in the school’s three cafeterias. 

As the director of Salem’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), I see first hand how healthy food is a way to fuel students’ bodies and their minds. From Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) to no-charge lunches using produce grown at the high school’ Pabich Family Freight Farm, we are taking every opportunity to get students to eat healthy foods and hopefully continue that habit long after high school.

Salem’s FNS has gained a national reputation for cutting-edge programming and creative partnership development. Last spring, USDA Administrator Audrey Rowe visited Salem High to see firsthand what Salem was doing to get more students to eat healthy with USDA-sponsored initiatives. Locally, Salem’s FNS runs four major USDA programs: the national school lunch program, the school breakfast program, the summer food service program, known here in Salem as “Salem Summer Meals,” and the Farm & Sea-to-School Program.

Additional USDA initiatives that combine with and refine these four programs include the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) that allows students in 10 qualifying schools to access breakfast and lunch at no charge daily, Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) and Breakfast 2 Go (B2G) which allow students in seven schools to eat breakfast in their classrooms for the first 10 minutes of classroom time in the morning while working on a lesson, and school nutrition grants that target nutrition education initiatives like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable grant in five schools.

All over the country, school food service authorities are professionalizing.

Gone are the days of the “lunch lady” stereotype. Today’s operations are highly qualified, professional organizations that put nutrition education front and center. The USDA requires all food service employees, even part-time employees, to meet annual professional development standards. This includes regular training in specialized cooking, kitchen management, food safety and defense practices, procurement and menu preparation. This year, Salem’s 50 food service staff members also have smart new uniforms, just one of the welcoming features in Salem’s cafeterias.

Increased programming participation also creates local jobs and contributes to the local economy. Grants have pushed daily meals participation to new levels. This increased demand has added several new breakfast helper jobs and the department is currently advertising for helpers and substitute cafeteria workers.

It’s gratifying to know that USDA options have increased daily meals participation to more than 70 percent at many of our schools. We’d like to see those numbers go higher — up to 85 percent. The meals are packed with nutrition and community eligibility provisions can offer all parents significant savings over the course of the school year. My staff members go home knowing that they are really contributing to the nutritional well-being of our students.

One trend that I have observed is that school food service is increasingly intersecting with and positively impacting student educational programming.

Salem High School science teacher Graeme Marcoux and his students are the new “Farm 2 School” provider for district. With seed money donated by General Mills, a FNS vendor, Marcoux’s classes established a high-tech hydroponic garden in a refurbished freight container located 50 feet up the hill from the Salem High School kitchen door.

“It doesn’t get fresher than that!” says Leeann Gibney, Salem High School kitchen manager. “The kids harvest the greens and we use them the next day in our meals and salad bars — here and across the district.”

The Freight Farm, generously donated last spring by the Pabich family of Salem, is capable of growing a one-acre equivalent of fresh greens, such as kale and a variety of lettuces, year-round. With the FNS as a built-in customer, the program is a sustainable, hands-on lesson in the science and business of modern urban farming.

The partnership is unique. It’s in the vanguard of national school science/math initiatives sweeping the country that offer 12-month, hands-on learning curriculum for high school science students. The Salem High students have also planted a cafeteria garden that will supply Food Services with seasonal fresh herbs and other produce.

As well as science and math, FNS programs and grants supplement physical education, art and community service programs at many schools. Breakfast in the Classroom, offered in six elementary schools, offers all students a free, quick and nutritious breakfast during the first 10 minutes of school every morning. This year at the Nathaniel Bowditch Elementary School, students support the cafeteria and teaching staffs with a community service project called “BIC Student Leaders,” wherein students take charge of delivering breakfasts to K-4 grades and providing guidance on clean up and use of leftover donations.

Patrice Toomey, BIC coordinator, notes, “The students take very seriously the responsibility of ensuring that breakfast is on time each morning. They share with other students the importance of cleaning up after meals to prevent pests. They also collect and distribute left over food for after school snacks or evening meals. Serving as leaders helps with student self-esteem and confidence.”

Other examples of FNS/education crossovers can be seen at the Nathaniel Bowditch, Collins Middle, Carlton and Horace Mann schools, where art teachers and students using materials purchased with FNS grants created peer-to-peer advertising campaigns to help students educate their fellow students on the importance of eating breakfast. Nathaniel Bowditch physical education teachers created a before-school Walking Club where last year students logged miles around Geswell Field in attempt to walk “from Salem to Gillette Stadium” over the course of the eight-week program.

Active student involvement has been a huge help. Daily breakfast participation at BIC schools rose to between 75 percent to 85 percent in the last school year. Moving breakfast out to student entrances at Collins and Salem High School, plus expanding options for breakfast .have increased breakfast participation from 8 percent to upward of 40 to 45 percent! Still, the district would like to push those participation levels to 80 percent, particularly since students have extended day at Collins and extensive after-school programming in athletics, music, drama and other activities at Salem High School.

In my department, we emphasize that our main goal is to feed kids. It’s pretty well established at this point that well-fed children are able to concentrate, learn and perform better academically than students who are not eating regular, nutritious meals. Eating at school is wonderful on so many levels for kids, but it’s also good for teachers and schools, and a great option for parents. I always encourage parents to visit their school cafeterias, meet the staff and experience firsthand the healthy, nutritious meals being created in Salem’s school cafeterias!

Deborah Jeffers is the director of Food and Nutrition Services for Salem Public Schools. She and the Food Services Department welcome parent and community involvement and support. For more information, call 978-744-1230 or visit the schools’ Food & Nutrition Services website at salemk12.org. This is one in a monthly series of columns from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.

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