I met Andy Bellatti of Small Bites, or rather he found this blog, last year and we became friends. I was intrigued when he told me that to be certified as a nutritionist, he would be spending some time in a public school cafeteria. He offered to share his experience as his dietetic internship in the public school setting. What follows is our interview…
1) Tell us about your dietetic internship. What does that involve?
A dietetic internship is required by the American Dietetic Association in order to take the Registered Dietitian exam. It consists of at least 1200 practice hours, divided between different rotations. Although internships vary somewhat in structure, they all offer a certain amount of hours of clinical, community, food service, and administrative nutrition experience.
I was very fortunate in that my internship director and the majority of my preceptors were very open to – and in some cases aligned with — my approach to nutrition, which is not the traditional one associated with Registered Dietitians (for a Cliffs Notes version of my approach, this blog post and this interview sum it up well).
2) Were you able to choose a Seattle public school or was that mandatory?
I was in Seattle PS during my two-week “community nutrition administration” rotation. My internship director was aware of my interest in food politics and the school lunch program (the first or second week of the internship, I mentioned ‘Fed Up With Lunch’ during a group discussion), so she placed me in the sole PS spot available each year.
3) Did you work at a central office or onsite at a school?
Both. I was in the central office three out of eight days. That central office houses the Seattle PS central kitchen, which is responsible for approximately 17,000 meals a day!
The other days, I went to elementary, middle, and high schools to observe lunch periods. I would often get there thirty or twenty minutes before the beginning of lunch so I could talk to the cafeteria staff.
4) What were your main duties?
My main project was to help the nutrition director brainstorm the logistics to implement salad bars in some elementary schools. I visited two elementary schools that already had salad bars to observe how their cafeteria was set up, how much time it took students to go through the line, notice any issues with flow, what students ate/didn’t eat, etc.
I then went to two elementary schools that didn’t have salad bars to see, firstly, if students were interested in having one, and also to strategize how the salad bar could be easily integrated in a way that would be manageable for the staff. Part of my project included suggesting specific salad bar models that were the appropriate height for children and would accommodate enough food, etc.
I personally asked to visit middle and high schools. That was not part of my project; just my interest in seeing nutrition in different settings.
5) What did you observe in your internship?
So many things! I’ll narrow it down to the things that struck me most:
- Contrary to much of Big Food’s messaging (“our product sneaks in a full serving of vegetables!”) children enjoyed fruits and vegetables. They ate tomatoes and carrots without ranch dip. Hummus was available with carrots, and kids as young as six and seven years old were loving it. On the days I was there, the fruit of the day was watermelon; the kids would get visibly excited when they walked up to the salad bar and saw the sliced watermelon.
- In one of the “salad bar-less” elementary schools, I went table to table and asked the students their thoughts on possibly getting a salad bar. I got an overwhelmingly positive response; kids started listing fruits and vegetables they wanted and liked (without me prompting them). I later found out that particular school had integrated nutrition and gardening into their curriculum. Truly amazing the power that has. In the other school, which didn’t have that element to their curriculum, the response was more neutral. It certainly wasn’t negative, though. At the very least, every child was able to identify one vegetable they liked. None of the 100 or so children I spoke with said, “I hate vegetables”. Peer pressure? Perhaps. But, that’s an example of positive peer pressure.
- Okay, now to the not-so-rosy part. Every middle and high school has a salad bar. But, pizza, burgers, cheeseburgers, breaded chicken sandwiches, and fries are offered daily. Sure, the fries are baked (Seattle was very progressive in that they removed all deep fryers from school kitchens seven years ago), but you are still talking about a frozen potato product that has a litany of ingredients tacked on and is about twelve degrees of separation from an actual potato.
- I was appalled at how little time some students had to eat lunch in the high school I visited. In the elementary and middle schools, the line moved fast enough that students had plenty of time. I didn’t see anyone rushing to eat or still having two thirds of their food left when the bell rang. At the elementary schools, children also had the option of staying an additional five minutes after the bell rang if they needed more time to eat (no students did on the days I was present). However, at that high school I visited, not only was the student population much larger, but school clubs had short meetings during the 30-minute lunch period!Students were coming to the cafeteria five minutes before lunch period ended; all that was left were chicken nuggets and fries. I sat with one of these ‘late-arrivals’ and we chatted briefly; she said this five-minute lunch was common for her. I thought about her the rest of the day, mainly about the fact that she ate processed, minimally nutritious food in a hurry and then had several hours of class left. That is not okay.
- At the high school, the cafeteria had a store that sold Izze sodas, Baked Lay’s, and cookies. I talked to the student employees and they told me they almost always run out of the cookies.
6) Did you find the experience enlightening? What surprised you the most?
Very enlightening. I got a better feel for the challenges that are present. For example, if an elementary school is to incorporate a salad bar, it means the cafeteria staff will now be expected to cut and slice fresh fruit (schools without salad bars offer a bowl of whole fruit and – get ready to cringe – single-servings of various plastic-wrapped vegetables; moving to a salad bar also means using a lot less plastic!).
That shift to tasks like slicing watermelons and oranges requires a new labor contract with the union, which is a process that takes time and negotiating. So, Seattle PS can not simply say, “Okay, starting next month, you’ll have a salad bar!”. The rotation, while short, gave me a good understanding of realistic timelines.
I also see the financial struggle, and the low priority nutrition has in most schools from an economic and administrative perspective. Schools simply don’t invest money in their cafeteria kitchens. Money is allotted to almost all other areas first. To be honest, I wouldn’t call what I saw kitchens, but heating stations. The food is made in the central kitchen and then heated up at each school. It’s sad, especially because I think there could be so much value in having students volunteer or do activities that involve helping prepare (as in cut, chop, cook) real food.
It was also interesting to see such a dichotomy in the central kitchen. On the one hand, you have some local and organic produce (beyond the basics, too – fresh jicama was being cut up at one station when I was there) and there are enchiladas made from fresh ingredients (as opposed to arriving frozen). Yet, literally about ten feet away, you see boxes of pre-made nacho cheese sauce mix with an unsavory ingredient list. But, then again. about thirty feet away from that, focaccia bread is being made from scratch.
7) What if anything needs to change from a nutritionist’s point of view in the school system?
I don’t think I speak for all nutritionists when I say this, but this is my take:
First, get rid of flavored milks. They are not needed. I am not in the “bone health is all about dairy!” camp (in this recent blog post, I explained why focusing on calcium and vitamin D is not enough from a bone health perspective). I don’t believe in the catastrophic “if kids don’t drink chocolate milk, they won’t drink milk at all!” viewpoint. First, that isn’t necessarily true. Second, there are so many cultures where dairy is not a central part of the diet and children are growing just fine. I don’t think milk is the ‘magic elixir’ the Dairy Council wants us to think it is, but if schools want to offer plain milk, that’s fine.
However, I also think it’s crucial to step back from – and challenge — this dairy framework that has become so normalized. I believe every table in a school cafeteria should have a large pitcher of water. I understand that could imply some additional waste, in terms of each student needing a container to drink that water out of, but schools could offer compostable and biodegradable cups. My point is – let’s get pitchers of water in there (with some orange or strawberry slices in there for truly natural flavor!) and send the message that water is a perfectly acceptable beverage. Of course, it would help if the USDA didn’t require a dairy component at every meal. As it is now, all children are required to put some sort of milk carton on their lunch tray (by the way, at the end of the lunch periods, I saw so many almost-full milk cartons poured out). Milk should not be the only source of hydration at lunch time.
In the middle and high school levels, the daily offering of pizza, breaded chicken, hamburgers, and fries has to go. I would be okay with one of those being offered once a week (so, in essence, pizza once a month, hamburgers once a month, etc.). The fact that middle and high school students can eat a hamburger, fries, and chocolate milk five days of the week for the entire school year is absurd and a nutritional aberration.
The other issue (and this applies at the elementary level, too) is that as long as programs like the USDA’s US Healthier School Challenge focus solely on nutrients, rather than ingredients, we won’t see a push towards better food. What we’ll see is a “breadsticks and marinara sauce” entree with fewer milligrams of sodium and some more whole grains. That is a “better than before” option but not necessarily a “good one” that offers much in the way of nutrition.
8) Can a parent meet with a school district’s nutrition staff?
Ooh, I wish you had asked me this while I was at the rotation so I could have asked. I’d imagine so; I didn’t get the impression they were secretive in any way. Of course, as you very well know, the school lunch issue has so many players (and layers) to it that there is an initial learning curve in understanding how all the pieces fit.
9) Anything else you would like to share?
I always knew school lunch was a multi-layered issue, but it wasn’t until this two-week experience that I got an understanding of all the respective pieces. Throughout the rotation I was reminded of how misguided current agricultural policies are, and also how meeting MyPlate or food group requirements is mainly politics – not nutrition – at work.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based nutritionist who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog and can be followed on Twitter.