Even with staffing shortages and supply challenges, Hillsborough County’s School Nutrition Program in Florida delivers 190,000 meals every day to students from incredibly diverse backgrounds. They know school meals are oftentimes the most nutritious meals of the day for many of their students and have worked to maintain a high-quality menu through the toughest of challenges.
While the pandemic hit the pause button on some of their innovative community partnerships, now that the light is at the end of the tunnel, opportunities to revive in-person ideas have begun to present themselves. This year, the district has plans to revive and grow their culinary training program, adding new American Culinary Federation Certified Culinarians to the more than 50 student nutrition managers and staff currently certified.
Farm to School has been successful, as well, and they are now working with a local non-profit, Locally Grown, Inc., to secure grant funding to expand even further over the next year with school gardens, additional education, and increased local purchasing. These partnerships bring business to local farmers while getting fresh fruits and veggies onto kids’ plates and good habits into their minds. When a hurricane devastated many crops and the schools were worried about getting fresh veggies, local farmers held product for them. The same farm even helped develop point of service marketing materials featuring the “Corn Song” to promote healthy eating and vegetable consumption.
The results are clear – all sides benefit from working together.
Making sure the kids and their families are involved is a priority for Hillsborough County’s School Nutrition program. While staffing challenges have added an extra challenge to cycle menus, time is taken to recognize the significant student diversity through food offerings and expand the palates of the entire student body in the process. Working with producers that can meet their needs, providing taste testing for students, is also essential to their success.
A strong connection to other school nutrition directors around the state of Florida has been rewarding and helpful, especially during the pandemic and subsequent supply chain challenges and labor shortages. Regularly scheduled calls, facilitated by their state agency, provide a space for people to tackle challenges and celebrate together in addition to sharing new ideas or innovative programs.
Serving 250 schools, it can be difficult to make sure family eligibility applications are being submitted for free and reduced lunch reimbursement. Fortunately, Hillsborough County’s School Nutrition Program has worked hard to take advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), helping to streamline their program, and making sure kids can access the nutritious school meals they offer without the need for an application.
While it certainly has not been a flat road these past few years, school nutrition professionals have continued to serve their students. With the partnership of the community and industry, and support from USDA and others, Hillsborough County’s School Nutrition Program has not just weathered the storm in service to the kids who count on them but has never stopped looking for ways to innovate and improve.