Memphis City Public Schools has done what any smart business does: focus on its customers. In this case though, the customers are the district’s more than 100,000 students, eager for a healthy, enjoyable meal.
Tony Geraci, executive director of Child Nutrition in Memphis, says it’s important to involve students in any change process from the beginning. In developing new menus and testing recipes, he works with Bridge Builders, a group of diverse students from across the district. They help him by providing early feedback, so that when he rolls out healthier options across the district, there is a good chance students will like them.
With such a large school district, much of the food service is centralized, which allows for more standardization of menus and consistency in preparation. Staff members in the district’s central kitchen do much of the cleaning and prepping, and bake breads from scratch. All the individual schools have kitchens for finishing the food preparation.
As a founder of the national farm-to-school movement, Geraci emphasizes fresh, local produce in his district’s schools. The district has 56 acres of its own property for farming, and 20 of the schools have gardens to teach students how to grow vegetables. In addition, Memphis has been using whole grains for many years.
All of this early work has paid off. School lunch participation has held steady with the recent changes. Memphis also has a fast growing breakfast program and has added an after-school supper program for students. Schools in the district have been participating in the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which provides tools and support to schools working to create healthier campuses, for the past five years.
Geraci says that it is helpful to educate students, staff, parents, and the community at large about nutrition issues. Food service personnel also participate in training to help them develop culinary skills and new menus. Collaboration with other chefs and institutions, such as hospitals, can build community-wide understanding of the social and economic impacts of the food system. He says that everyone needs to understand why the school meal changes are necessary: to improve student health.