Kass spoke March 28 during the National Food Service Management Institute’s second Major Cities Training Symposium, which attracts chefs and nutrition directors from the nation’s 40 largest school districts to discuss healthy food initiatives, strategies and challenges faced by schools. His address focused on a national movement to improve the quality of school meals through the Chefs Move to Schools program, part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.
Chefs Move to Schools pairs local chefs with schools to help educate children about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. With more than 31 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, these efforts can have a significant impact on childhood obesity rates, which have tripled in the past three decades – nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese.
"The work that you guys are doing is so critical to the future of this nation," Kass told symposium participants. "Everywhere I go, and everywhere the first lady goes, we’re just blown away by the commitment to our kids’ health, the dedication on a daily basis. Schools are the heart and soul of a kid’s life, and we know they need to be places that foster support and the healthy well-being of our kids."
The symposium, hosted in partnership with the School Nutrition Association and U.S. Department of Agriculture, was created in 2011 to address challenges faced by large school districts, said Katie Wilson, NFSMI executive director.
"These school districts serve 80 percent of children in America," Wilson said. "The lowest enrollment is about 85,000. They have some very significant training needs because of their size. They might have 500 vacancies in the kitchen at one time. How do you deal with substitutes, how do you train that many people with a limited budget? "
The challenges can be daunting, acknowledged Kass, who is also the White House senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives.
"There’s not a school chef who doesn’t have limited resources, a very limited kitchen and very little time to serve a lot of kids," he said. "These are challenges everyday that folks are overcoming. I think they’re heroes. I think folks are coming together, they’re understanding their role even better and they’re realizing that ‘Yes, we do great work but we have some real improvements we can make.’ We’re seeing incredible changes across the country."
Robin Gourlay of the Scottish Government Food and Drink Division also spoke at the symposium, via webinar, on Scotland’s Hungry for Success nutrition overhaul, as well as the unique school lunch system in the East Ayrshire school district. Like America, the United Kingdom’s obesity rate is among the top three worldwide.
"We have a professional partnership with the UK," Wilson said. "They’ve put in very strict nutrition standards in their schools, only they did it with a commercial look and a sort of commercial feel to their cafeterias. East Ayrshire is a rural community – it’s a whole different perspective of how school nutrition runs there."
Seventy percent of food served in East Ayrshire is locally produced, 90 percent is unprocessed and 35 percent is organic, qualities that have gained the school district international recognition as one of the world’s most creative school food systems.
Other speakers included Janey Thornton, USDA/FNS deputy under secretary, who discussed changes to the school lunch patterns, which includes adding more leafy greens, orange vegetables and legumes to school menus; Lindsay Graham, an independent school food and health adviser and registered nurse; and Kevin Roberts, executive director for the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition Programs. The symposium also offered training opportunities and resource tables from 10 nonprofits, including the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the National Dairy Council and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wednesday’s activities ended with a chef cook-off, where teams of school district chefs created meals using ingredients from the new school menu pattern. The cook-off was judged by NFSMI staff and Lafayette Middle School students.
On Thursday, participants took part in a food defense tabletop exercise in partnership with the USDA Food Safety section.
"For our district, we come to the symposium partially so we can see what other large districts are doing and be able to improve the services we offer," said Debra Ann Brunner, supervising dietician for Milwaukee Public Schools. "It’s also to hear updates as well."
The Milwaukee Public School District includes 142 schools and 87,000 students. Representatives from the school district also attended the inaugural Major Cities Training Symposium.
Efforts to improve school meals, promote healthy lifestyles among the nation’s youth and combat obesity must continue nationwide, Kass said.
"This is much bigger than just serving school meals," he said. "It’s so important in our nation for our kids’ lives. The first lady knows that, the president knows that and we’re going to work really hard to support the effort in any way we can. It’s about being a strong, young kid. That’s what we’re after."
The NFSMI, part of the UM School of Applied Sciences, is dedicated to providing information and services that promote continuous improvement of child nutrition programs. It was established in 1989 by Congress and funded at UM by a grant administered by USDA and FNS in 1991. The institute is the only federally funded national center with a focus on applied research, education and training and technical assistance for school nutrition programs.