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EDIBLE EDUCATION: Nutrition toolkit available for schools

December 24, 2014
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

ELIZABETHTOWN - A year after the Essex County "School Nutrition Toolkit" was published, some of the 13 public schools that serve county residents are embracing the document's message of serving healthier food to students and moving beyond the minimum regulations.

In 2013, Essex County Public Health published the "School Nutrition Toolkit: Planning, Enhancing & Sustaining Great Nutrition in Your School" to help school administrators and kitchen managers meet nutrition guidelines mandated by the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

"Where I think that legislation fell short was actually helping districts put that policy level into practice," said Jessica Darney Buehler, senior public health educator at Essex County Public Health. "That can be the place where a lot of times we fall short on policy. The concept is great, and people might like it, but how do you actually put it into practice?"

Article Photos

Shannon Shambo serves lunch on pizza day.
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

The 44-page booklet aims to answer two main questions: What does it take to serve healthy foods in school cafeterias that meet school nutrition regulations? And how do we get students to eat them?

Copies of the toolkit were mailed to the county's public schools in August 2013.

"It has everything in there, from farm to school to grant opportunities," Buehler said. "It's very basic, but at the same time it has a lot of great resources."

The toolkit was developed with Keene Central School Nutrition Manager Julie Holbrook and funded by Creating Healthy Places in Essex County, a state grant-funded program.

"I think what Julie brings to the table is a lot of expertise of where she gets her foods, the recipes that she uses, how she does it, and it gets to be a one-on-one level," Buehler said. "It's sort of a coaching capacity, so we really are trying to work with the districts on where their interest lies, what they think will be successful to go after some low-hanging fruit and then be able to take the successes that we reach and build upon it from there."


The mentor

Keene Central School hired Holbrook in January 2007, and by June of that year, she had begun making notable changes to the cafeteria. Butter replaced margarine. Shell eggs replaced processed eggs. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables replaced canned fruits and vegetables. A garden that would supply fresh produce was planted. By September, Holbrook was using tomatoes, greens, peas, squash and kale from the garden in the cafeteria. By June 2008, staffers were making most of the school's food from scratch. By June 2009, they were making all the bread products from scratch, including pizza dough. By September 2010, all beef was being bought from local farms, there was no flavored milk and the school became a CSA member of the Essex Farm.

Holbrook's work caught the eye of administrators at the Schroon Lake Central School District, who hired her in 2012 to transform their cafeteria food.

"I knew Julie was doing some great things at Keene," Buehler said. "I was thinking, 'How can we share her knowledge and experience with other districts?'"

The toolkit is now being used in at least two other school districts: Moriah and Crown Point. Essex County Public Health received a grant from the New York State Health Foundation to make cafeteria changes in those districts during the 2014-15 school year.

"We approached districts that had the highest percentages of free and reduced lunches," Buehler said. "We wanted to have an impact for communities where there seemed to be bigger disparities with income and where more kids would probably be accessing the school nutrition program."

Now Holbrook will get a chance to prove that the changes she's made at Keene and Schroon Lake can be made in larger districts.

"We've proven time and again that it's cheaper to cook from scratch than it is to buy processed food, hands down," Holbrook said.

Keene had an enrollment of 179 in September. Schroon Lake had 198 students in 2013, Crown Point had 252 and Moriah had 736, according to the New York State Education Department.

"I'd like other schools to be doing it because I believe they can," Holbrook said. "I've proved it in Schroon. Moriah will be next and hopefully Crown Point."


Toolkit basics

The "School Nutrition Toolkit" is organized in five sections: planning, enhancing, sustaining, additional resources/references and top choice reports.

In the planning section, administrators and food staff are encouraged to stay updated on nutrition policies, lead by example and involve students. They are also given a brief overview of the federal guidelines in the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act.

Standards must be met by schools accepting federal funds for their free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs. By working within the new guidelines listed below, nutrition managers can guarantee their school an additional 6 cents reimbursement per meal.

Students must be served a mandated level of fruits and vegetables every day.

Only fat-free or low-fat milk can be served.

Calories are limited depending on the average amount necessary.

Increase the whole grains offered, and slowly increase to 100 percent whole grain offerings.

Meet limits on saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.

The toolkit reinforces that making changes will take time, especially as nutrition managers get used to the new guidelines and associated paperwork and find vendors to supply food that meets the new standards.

"I think the problem with a lot of our districts is not that they don't have an interest, but there is so much involved with school nutrition," Buehler said. "The requirements, trying to maintain a positive bottom line and keeping the kids and faculty happy, how to do that I think is challenging for a lot of districts."

In the enhancement section, the toolkit gives information on breakfast, moving to white milk only, sugar-sweetened beverages, competitive foods (a la carte items and snacks), cafeteria culture, the cafeteria as a classroom, customer service, communication and engagement, school gardening, classroom integration, farm to school, composting and fundraising.

In the sustaining section, the toolkit explains how nutrition guidelines work with recipes and menus, the school wellness policy, community communication, and financing and purchasing.

"What Julie did in Keene was basically to redistribute resources, redistribute from money that would be going to, say, packaging and put it into personnel so that there's more staff time to use whole foods, prepare and serve them," Buehler said. "And that's the model that we wanted to support."


Making changes

The "School Nutrition Toolkit" is a unique document because it comes with two people - Buehler and Holbrook - who can help administrators and kitchen managers make changes in their schools.

"I think what we've tried to do is be a conduit of information and make connections for people," Buehler said. "We know that there are a lot of resources out there, and there's a lot of information on the web, but we wanted to be able to take something that's a local success and share it with other people."

Buehler and Holbrook understand that the culture in every school is different; therefore, what works in one community may not work in another. And there can be many roadblocks to change, as Holbrook saw firsthand this past summer while attending the School Nutrition Association's national conference in Boston.

"I had one person I could have a conversation with all week," Holbrook said. "They're nice people. Most of them started as dishwashers. ... They're doing the best they can or want to do things, but you have administration that can put a cog in the wheel. You have a board that can put a cog in the wheel. You have someone that's been there for 20 years that doesn't want to change that can put a cog in the wheel. There are so many things that can make it almost impossible to do."

Change takes time, so Holbrook begins her work with other schools by taking an assessment and making small improvements. She starts with pizza. Right away, Holbrook saw an opportunity to save Moriah and Crown Point money based on what they're paying for processed pizza that's thrown on a tray, heated in an oven and served to students.

"They would have saved $300 to $400 every time they made pizza if they had made it from scratch," Holbrook said. "Exponentially, if you serve it once a week, that's thousands of dollars that you're saving just from making pizza from scratch. So that thousands of dollars can afford the labor that it costs to make pizza shells and the sauce."

Holbrook enjoys being part of the food revolution in Adirondack schools.

"I love to help people," she said. "You can have my recipes. You can have my brain. It's not hard. That's a myth. I'm busting myths."

For more information about Essex County's School Nutrition Toolkit, visit online at Or call Jessica Darney Buehler at 518-873-3518.



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