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Cafeteria Workers Guide Healthy Choices  

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

This entry comes to Thriving Schools from Mackenzie Gomes, 2014 summer intern at Dairy Council of California.   

Normally when you hear the roar of laughter coming from the school cafeteria, it’s the sound of happy students socializing and releasing a bit of energy. One sunny afternoon in June, however, the laughter at Mountain View School District in Southern California came from lunchroom staff as they learned some new Zumba dance moves.

This burst of physical activity took place during a training on how to create a “smarter” lunchroom, presented to 50 staff from around the district just prior to summer break.  Offered by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, the workshop underscored the important role that cafeteria workers play in promoting school and community health, in part by engaging their students in healthy eating.

Trainer Candice Sainz, Community Nutrition Advisor at Dairy Council of California, offered an overview of research-based strategies proven to increase the number of students who choose a fruit, a vegetable and a healthy entrée at lunch.  Many of the strategies – such as displaying fruit prominently and using signs to draw attention to it, displaying vegetables with their names clearly listed, and placing healthy entrees first in the lunch line – involve relatively simple shifts in mindset and low cost or no-cost changes to the physical environment, yet yield very positive results.  Another promising strategy is to create a “healthy choices only” convenience line.

These strategies are derived from research conducted by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program; the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement helps schools put the strategies in place.  It’s a movement that can’t succeed without the active leadership of the staff who run the cafeterias.   It’s also a movement with tremendous potential:  more than 30 million children around the country are fed by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

“The workshop triggered ideas on the importance of presentation,” said Susan Delgado, Director of Food Services for the Mountain View School District. “We hope to use the information to reorganize our salad bars for more visual appeal, as well as encouraging healthful choices for our students.”

Readers of Thriving Schools may be familiar with the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which began in 2009 with the goal of creating sustainable research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices. More recently, organizations in California have been partnering to spread the principles and best practices of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement more broadly to schools throughout the state.

A Day in the Life of a Cafeteria Worker

Participants watched “A Day in the Life of a Cafeteria Worker,” a short video from a news station in Indiana that stars veteran reporter Dennis Nartker, who spent a day as a food service worker at North Side Elementary. Viewers see Nartker wearing an apron that is too short, a hair net that is too large and gloves that are too small, and watch him struggle through the day, burning his fingers on hot pans of food.  At the end of his shift, Nartker describes the lunchroom workers as “quick and efficient” and sounds amazed by their ability to serve 350 students in an hour and a half.

“These ladies work together as a team!” he remarks.

The video got a hearty laugh from the training participants and served as a tasty conversation piece.


If you’re on Twitter, you can get updates on the latest strategies to help maximize students’ choices by following the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement @SmartLunchrooms

Dairy Council of California, a partner in the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, offers the website for educators and wellness providers with nutrition lesson plans, games for kids and nutrition education for parents.

Special thanks to Emily Gustafson, Thriving Schools intern, for her contributions to this post. 

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