How Staff Training Supports Strong School Food Nutrition

May 01, 2015

Dr. Katie Wilson starts her new position as Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services today.

Dr. Katie Wilson starts her new position as Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services today. Previously, Wilson served as executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI) and as president of the School Nutrition Association. We spoke to her in March about how training plays an important role in helping schools meet the nutrition standards outlined by 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Dr. Katie Wilson has worked on school food from many angles throughout her long career. She served as school nutrition director for a Wisconsin school district, president of the School Nutrition Association, chairman of the board for the School Nutrition Foundation and executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI). And as of May 1, she’ll begin a term as the deputy under secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

Wilson knows school food. And of the reasons commonly cited for wanting more “flexibility” on school nutrition standards set out by 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Acts — increased plate waste and decreased participation — Wilson said training is a big part of the solution. “What we are finding is that so many districts don’t provide any training,” she said. “There’s basic food safety training but there isn’t anything more for school cooks to help them make the changes required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

Many of the concerns about the standards stem from the belief that the kids don’t like and won’t eat the healthier options. “Kids need time to adjust to new food,” Wilson said. “We need to be patient, and we need to take time to do this.”

In addition to patience, training plays an important role. NFSMI has been working with other agencies to provide such training. This past November, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) partnered with NFSMI to conduct a pilot training program for the southeast region. State agencies identified districts that were meeting regulations and doing a great job, as well as districts that were facing challenges. Both groups were invited to this two-day workshop. A total of 53 school food authorities were paired with 27 mentors in order to provide peer-to-peer support on issues ranging from financial management to student participation.

“We have gotten unbelievable feedback about this program,” Wilson says. In an announcement about expanding the program to all regions of the country, the FNS quoted Gina Howard, the school nutrition director for Warren County School District in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who attended the initial pilot in Mississippi. “Coming to the workshop, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But getting to know people, getting their email addresses, getting to talk to them about the specifics of their programs, gave me the opportunity to network and be able to find solutions to some of our everyday problems. I will be ever changed by this workshop. It gave me excitement for the future. It gave me an opportunity to see things from a different viewpoint. And my plans from the workshop are to change the perception of school meals.”

The top challenges cited by participants of the first program were plate waste, financial concerns, menu planning and increasing participation. These are challenges facing many district across the country, and NFSMI wanted to make sure those that needed the information could get it. All of the panels from that first two-day session were recorded and are available on NFSMI’s website. The presentations used are also available.

One such presentation used during a training session — and still available on NFSMI’s website — about meal planning was a manual for creating lunch meal patterns. The presentation includes the specific requirements and detailed information about all menu components: meat, vegetable, fruit, grains and fluid milk. Toward the end of the presentation, sample meals are provided and attendees are asked to determine whether or not a meal meets the requirements and is reimbursable. And this is just one of hundreds of documents available on NFSMI’s website.

The idea for the peer mentoring stemmed from Wilson’s own experience in Wisconsin. A group of directors in Western Wisconsin would get together once a month to have lunch and talk about their challenges. For example, when it was time to order USDA food, the group would sit together in a computer lab to order that food. “People have to get out of their district and see what’s going on” she said. “We know that this type of peer-to-peer mentoring has been great.”

This sort of mentoring is even more important when taking into consideration new meal patterns and nutritional requirements. Wilson believes that with time and proper training, all districts will be able to offer their students the healthy food they deserve.

We want to congratulate Dr. Katie Wilson on her appointment with the USDA, and we’re excited to see what she’ll will do in her new role!