Surveys show support for healthy school meals and staff training

Written by Milt Miller – I just finished reading an article published on Agri-Pulse, August 18, 2015, regarding two recent surveys commissioned, one by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the other by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, concerning school food programs. For those who have not seen it a para-phrased version is included below.

The article speaks to how higher nutrition standards for school meals imposed by the Obama administration retain strong public support, according to a new poll. The poll shows that 57% of Americans think school meals have gotten better.

However, a second survey released Tuesday suggests many public school nutrition directors have been struggling to get their staff trained to carry out the standards, which were implemented under direction of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

A poll commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, conducted in May and released August 11, 2015, found that 48 percent of the 1,200 randomly selected adults surveyed thought the new healthy meal standards should be strengthened. Thirty-eight percent said they should be kept the same while seven percent said they should be lowered.

When asked to rank the contributors to childhood obesity, respondents placed blame on less recess time and fewer physical education programs in school over other contributors, including school dining programs or urban food deserts.

Now, four years since the nutrition legislation was enacted, fifty-seven percent of those polled stated that cafeteria food has improved, twenty percent say it has stayed the same, and nine percent say it has declined. Over this four year period public opinion of school food appears to have improved by thirty-one percent, up from twenty-six percent in April 2010.

One of the most significant findings of this survey was that only thirty-seven percent of food directors have budgets for the staff development and training they say is crucial to meeting the new standards mandated by the USDA. Seventy-two percent of the directors polled said support from state agencies was not sufficient to improve this area.

Training needs requested by the 3,372 directors polled were quite diverse. Sixty-nine percent requested training or additional reimbursement for completing paperwork on the evaluations that assess compliance with the National School Lunch Program, more than sixty percent required guidance on menu development, marketing and promoting new menus, sixty-three percent indicated more training is needed to increase understanding of compliance with new meal and nutrient requirements, twenty-eight percent required additional training on purchasing and operating new equipment, and twenty-three and thirty-six percent respectively, needed guidance in employing basic cooking and nutrition skills safely. To fix this issue, Pew and the Johnson Foundation recommended schools and all levels of government prioritize funding for training. This position was backed by almost half of those surveyed in the Kellogg poll.

After reading this article I understand that these surveys lend credibility to the reasons behind the new Professional Standards for Food Service Professionals Training Guidelines. Anyone in the industry knows that training has been the most needed ingredient for the implementation of the HHFKA guidelines in schools. We also knew that as close to breakeven as most programs always seem to be, that very little if any funds would be budgeted for training in cooking basics and marketing. These are the areas that traditionally have taken a back seat in the training process and now, with today’s students they have become the most needed.

Students of today are savvy shoppers with discerning tastes. They know what they want and what they are willing to pay for. They know restaurant fare and care little for home-cooked goodness, as most meals they get are not from home. They know presentation, freshness, good customer service, and perceived value. All areas where most school food programs miss the mark. That seems to be the ingredients needed for a successful front of the house.

The back of the house needs basic cooking and food handling techniques, proper setup to support flow of service, basic food processing techniques to control waste, and meal identification skills. These areas will create a strong back of house and insure significant increases in participation. Without instilling a concrete grasp of the aforementioned basics, no program can expect to succeed. Let’s look at the facts of life and sports… great basics lead to success and championships. In all walks of life the person or team with the most complete grasps of the basics is destined for success.

On Capitol Hill, the nutritional value of school lunches under the new standards is not in question as much as the operational costs they say comes with them. Opponents of the USDA-set standards say they lead to hikes in food waste and declines in cafeteria revenues, because students won’t eat the healthier foods.

SNA (School Nutrition Association) spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner said, “The Pew survey highlights the need for increased funding for schools working to meet new standards.” “The overwhelming complexity of the nutrition standards… is cited as the top training need for frontline cafeteria staff” by SNA membership, Pratt-Heavner told Agri-Pulse. “As schools struggle to manage the higher cost of meeting new nutrition standards, they (will) need additional resources to cover training costs.”

Katie Wilson, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, wrote on the USDA blog Monday that the department was “prioritizing thorough, ongoing trainings” for school kitchen staff through its Team Up for School Nutrition Success initiative launched last year. The program provides schools with financial management, youth engagement and menu planning training, in addition to guidance on food safety, professional standards and utilizing local produce. “USDA understands that by training leaders locally, we can expand our reach tremendously and by empowering mentors at the state and local level, we provide communities with lasting, personalized support that is there to stay,” Wilson said.

All three above mentioned camps show diverse views to solve the problem. In my opinion, all sound like better training for directors and managers and the need for more funding from SNA. USDA’s training programs for the new standards do include getting back to basic criteria. These I hope will not be overshadowed by the politically correct choices on menu planning, procurement, and nutritional standards, which smack of training for directors, not staff. More funding is needed, but Congress is looking to control waste instead of opening purse strings. A great director or manager knows the fastest way to a championship is having a strong, basically sound staff. The revenues generated and found by having a well-trained staff can carry a program.

This year when you are looking at training programs that will gain you the sufficient number of CEU’s to comply with the guidelines remember these simple steps: 

1. What are my staff’s greatest weaknesses and strengths?

2. What programming will best improve those weaknesses?

3. What programs will most improve areas of lost revenue and declining participation?

4. Where will I get the most bang for my buck?

5. Is the presenter speaking and presenting on a level best understood by my staff?

6. Are the contents of the program suited to my immediate needs?

7. Is this program getting me back to the grass roots and back to ground level basics?

I guess what I am trying to say is, all canned programs are not created equal. A program customized to your specific needs, while more expensive (maybe) may yield better results in the end. Review all programming that your staff will receive to make sure it is appropriate. Interview presenters and know where they are going with what they are presenting and insure it meets your needs. Some free programming is not what you want just because it is free, make sure it is at an appropriate level and meets your needs. Finally, insure that training dollars are being wisely spent. Training that produces minimal results is virtually worthless. All training programs are not created equal.

Politically correct training programs, ones that only address the hot-button issues of today, produce politically correct CEUs. They produce little else and if you don’t have the basics to back them up, you have an empty certificate of accomplishment. Time management, HACCP, Servsafe, and menu planning are great for directors and some staff, but if you don’t have the basic food handling and cooking knowledge to back them up; what are you really getting? Do I have training programs? Yes. Are they the right ones for your program? You tell me. I’m not advertising and saying mine are better. Maybe for some they are and for some they are not. But let’s discuss mine or anyone else’s and see. If mine are missing the mark, I would rather learn from you than waste your time and money.

I love this industry and want to see the best possible results to insure our students are getting the best possible service and the operations are increasing participation and revenues. I want every school food operation to be as successful as it possibly can be. All I am saying is training is mandatory now, so choose wisely!

Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. Throughout his 32 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at;

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