Who am I? My name is Lisa Suriano. I’m the Director of Operations for J.C. Food, a school food service management company in the New York metro area. It is a company my father founded and has operated for 34 years exclusively in independent schools. I was raised listening to and experiencing the ins and outs of school food service management literally my entire life. My passion for wholesome food and childhood nutrition lead me to pursue a Master’s of Science in Nutrition. I will be completing my degree this May!
When thinking over what to write for my guest blog post my mind was overwhelmed with possible topics. The issues surrounding school food are vast and extremely complex: over processed foods, inadequate or underutilized kitchen equipment, lack of staff training and motivation, lack of funds, lack of nutrition education, potential benefits of school gardens and kitchen classrooms, potential new job creation and/or career advancement . . .
Phew I couldn’t pick one so I decided to take a cue from Mrs. Q and just tell you about the typical lunch we served at one of my schools today:
Here we have a homemade chicken tender. Children LOVE and are comforted by this food but it is notoriously fried and hormone pumped, processed and refined. We decided to take this beloved classic and give it a healthy make over. We marinate anti-biotic and hormone free chicken in plain yogurt and spices over night to increase tenderness and flavor. Then they are hand breaded in a mixture of whole wheat and panko breadcrumbs with a bit of parmesan cheese. The tenders are quickly baked in a very hot oven and our students gobble them up – lean protein and whole grains! These tenders were served with a homemade applesauce using NY state apples. This meal is accompanied by simple roasted potatoes. Our staff has been trained to cut, season and roast these potatoes but they can easily be done whole to save time. We also served fresh green beans and fresh carrots. I find that children prefer veggies with vibrant colors and a crunch.
In the time that I have been working hands on in the school food industry I have gained a clear understanding of what it takes to produce a successful healthy school lunch and it is very doable. (By “successful” I mean a lunch that the students look forward to, eat and enjoy.) The overarching theme to achieving this is education.
We are fighting against a fast food industry that is utilizing advertising and brain washing us all. How did this country slow down cigarette smoking? By banning on-air advertising and exposing young people and their parents to the ill effects of smoking. Now I don’t have a problem with fast food companies advertising healthy options. But the constant images of juicy burgers and glistening fries are attacking this country! As was done with smoking, we need to promote the dangers of eating such foods. But changing advertising is not the only answer. We need:
1. Nutrition Education: Nutrition has not been a focus of the school curriculum. However, it is a critical life skill that is not understood by the majority of people. If it is not being taught in school or practiced in their lives, how can we expect children to make the right food choices?
2. Food Service Staff Education: In order to serve the desired type of lunches, the people producing them must know how to cook nutritious food. This is a great opportunity to create (much-needed) jobs and re-train current workers. It is time to elevate the job status of the “Lunch Lady” and give our troops in the kitchen the respect and resources they deserve. (The wonderful people I work with a proud of what they do. Such a great feeling!)
3. Manufacturer Education: It is not possible, nor is it economically responsible to cut out food manufacturers from school lunch. We need to make clear requirements of the products we want served to our students. Manufacturers need to be challenged and incentivized to be part of the solution.
Those of us whom are concerned and clamoring for change (our numbers are growing by the day! Just look at what Mrs. Q has accomplished here!) need to demand that our legislators understand and act properly on this issue. They need to not simply “Band-Aid” the problems and make short-term solutions. Fixing our food systems is a huge component in fixing our health care system and our economy. The money we spend today addressing the child nutrition issues will go a long way in fixing the obesity problem and will go a longer way in saving us future dollars on health care.
We have a country full of many great minds; the federal government needs to bring them together and create a long-term plan to insure that our students (our future) are educated to appreciate good, healthy foods. If not, our struggles with medical care will only grow exponentially. They will be insurmountable.
I feel the tide turning in the American food industry. I am energized by it. I have been working to make positive change in my corner of the world, and, am truly pleased to feel part of a greater movement. We need to remember that we are feeding and fueling the future. Let’s do this the right way!
If you are interested, you can learn more about my approach to school food and nutrition education at:
NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation (and neither am I).