Unit 4 food director helps mentor others

Unit 4 food director helps mentor others

CHAMPAIGN — Unit 4's food service director was one of four in central Illinois chosen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help other schools meet federal school lunch requirements.

During a workshop put on by the state board of education and the USDA in Champaign this week, Unit 4's Mary Davis worked with her peers from the Mahomet-Seymour and Cerro Gordo districts to help them increase student participation in school lunches and work on menu planning skills.

Davis said Unit 4 was picked because of the success its school lunch program has had since federal regulations on child nutrition were implemented in 2010.

"Even though the regulations were strict, we took advantage of every opportunity we could to increase participation with breakfast and lunch. We advertised our meals more, we revised our menus to get more popular items included in our entrees," she said.

When the district hired Laura Dees as the assistant food service director, Davis said, they were able to implement a new "offer versus serve" program, in which kids could pick three or four food items from a cart (one had to be a fruit or vegetable) instead of waiting in the traditional line. The new system sped up the process and gave students more freedom to choose at lunch, Davis said.

Davis was recruited by the state and the USDA to serve as a mentor during central Illinois' first Team Up for School Nutrition event, held Monday.

The workshops began in 2014, when the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service began working with the Institute for Child Nutrition. The goal: to have food service directors like Davis mentor their peers from districts that may be struggling with some aspects of the healthy meal requirements of federal nutrition programs, according to USDA Midwest region spokeswoman Kathy FioRito.

Common issues include low student participation in the lunch program, limited access to whole grain products, kids refusing to eat fruits and vegetables and problems related to managing federal dollars and menu planning.

Mentoring can take place through a series of workshops or one-day conferences, like the one in Champaign this week. Katie Wilson, the USDA's under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, believes the coaching model is the most effective way to address these issues.

"When you talk to people who have different training or are from a different district and can sit down and talk about what works and what doesn't work and really learn from one another, you'll see a lot of progress," said Wilson, whose nutrition tour included stops at area schools this week. "There's so many simplistic aha moments — like, when talking about how to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies, we've had people suggest that students are more likely to eat an apple if it's sliced than if it's served whole."

Monday, Davis worked with Mindy Sawyer, food service director at Cerro Gordo, and Molly Smith, the director in Mahomet. The mentoring session focused mainly on increasing student participation in Mahomet's breakfast program — "We can always improve in this area," Smith said — and ironing out the kinks in Cerro Gordo's menu planning.

Each mentor-mentee group left the workshop with a plan of action for their district, Wilson said.

Sawyer is a believer.

"I've only been working in the director position since 2012, so I'm relatively new to all this," she said. "... I can't emphasize enough how much I learned just being able to sit down and speak to fellow directors who know exactly what I'm experiencing everyday. And it was helpful to have a voice from Washington there who has been on our side of the fence."

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