It Takes a Village


At the Black River Education Center, Food Service Director Bonnie Cooper embraced the proverb that ‘it takes a village’ to create long-term change. Cooper recruited students, teachers, staff, parents and community partners to create a school wellness committee. The 13-member committee worked throughout the year to develop health-enhancing guidelines and programs that would garner district-wide support.

Building a Culture of Health

To build a culture of health, the committee started with updating the district wellness policy. School wellness policies set the expectations for nutrition and activity opportunities offered within the school community. Policies are powerful tools – they can provide leverage for adding programs and improve coordination.

The final policy, approved by the school board in July 2016, included the following key elements:

  • School meal guidelines
  • Smarter Lunchroom strategies
  • Staff qualifications and professional development
  • Classroom celebration recommendations
  • Standards for competitive foods and beverages
  • Drinking water accessibility guidelines and promotion
  • Physical education requirements
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Maybe? and Love! ballot boxes nudge students to find a tasty vegetable.

Community Carnival of Wellness

With contributions from the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and coordination from the new wellness committee, a Get Moving Night was held in March 2016. The event featured some of the new menu items as well as community physical activity partners – 160 students, 80 parents and 25 school members attended the event. The event featured:

  • A 9-hole miniature golf course located in the music room.
  • An obstacle course placed inside the cafeteria and managed by staff from a local fitness center.
  • Shake It Up Fruit Smoothies made with applesauce, 100% pineapple or orange juice and fresh strawberry or vanilla yogurt.
  • A Vegetable Tasting Station featured fresh bell peppers, snap peas, zucchini, cauliflower and broccoli.

More than 220 samples of fresh vegetables were taste tested on the event night. Students voted on their favorites; bell peppers (n=29), broccoli (n=22), snap peas (n=20) and zucchini (n= 21) received a ton of “love it” votes.

Cooper said, “The purpose of the voting was to get students’ opinion in a relaxing, fun atmosphere. These votes helped us create a different variety of vegetables for our lunch menus.”

To promote the carnival event, the cafeteria offered breakfast smoothies every Tuesday in March. Smoothie Tuesday was so popular that it earned a permanent spot on the breakfast menu.

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Tri-color pepper cups grabbed student attention.

Parents, students, teachers and nutrition staff agreed – the event was a major success in raising awareness of fitness and improving the attitudes toward fruits and vegetables. People had fun, they learned something new and all activities improved student well being.

“I love these healthy choices for our children while they are at school and these options are so tasty!” remarked one parent during the event.

Ongoing Work

Building a culture of health is ongoing work. The Black River Wellness Team plans to keep up the momentum. Next year, they will work to broaden the scope of the wellness policy to include sleep recommendations.

Vote Now. Vote Often.


Everyone should vote, and they should vote often. Stuff the ballot boxes. Go back and say more. Voting is important because it gives voice to your opinion.

We vote for political candidates, talent show contestants, social media posts, and much more. Why not use voting to help create irresistible school meals?

In school cafeteria voting, there are no red states or blue states – it’s a whole rainbow of colors. Our candidates are green leafy vegetables, red bell peppers, purple grapes, and ruby-colored pomegranates – to name a few.

Vote Now (and How).

OHIO Team Nutrition schools used a variety of ways to capture their students’ response to meals and new items. In school nutrition, asking students to voice their opinion creates menus that children will love, allowing schools to offer meals that nourish students for a day of learning.

Informal Polling

The easiest way to gather feedback is to ask students what they think. Informal polling can be as simple as walking through the cafeteria and asking students what they liked about an item.

Informal polling can also operate like an exit poll. As students leave the line or the cafeteria, staff ask a sample of students for their responses. Results give school nutrition professionals a quick sense of the response to an item.

Informal polling of customers is very easy to implement and requires no preparation work. It also creates a dialogue with current and potential customers. One downside of this quick-response method of information collection is that it may be difficult to summarize and track responses.

Public Declaration

Voting for your favorite candidate does not have to be secretive or require a ballot box. Public “liking” is something that students are quite familiar with.

Summit Academy in Xenia used clothespins and a poster board to collect feedback from their students. After sampling items as part of a fruit and vegetable of the month program, students placed a pin by their response: did they “like all”; “like some; or “like none” of the items sampled.

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Students use clothespins to mark their response.

We “like” this method because it teaches students that there are a variety of responses to trying a new food item. In Xenia, participation in taste tests grew over the course of the year, and all students discovered new items that they “liked”.

There are countless ways to create public voting systems. Try one of these:

  • Students place stickers by names of the items they like best.
  • Students place their empty tasting cup on a tray or in a basket to indicate the items they prefer.
  • Students raise their hands to polling questions.

Public declarations require minimal equipment and create a real-time visual picture of the patterns in student responses. This method also allows us to quantify and compare responses to a variety of food items.

Ballot Box

In traditional voting, voters complete a ballot and place it in a ballot box. After all the voting is complete, results are tallied – and a winner is declared. Ballot voting can be fun and suspenseful.

Food Service Director Bonnie Cooper at Black River Education Center created her own ballot boxes to use as part of a family fun night. Students and their parents voted for “Maybe?” items and “Love!” items. The positive-only responses frame the experience for children – and nudges children to look for a maybe or love item!

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Maybe? and Love! ballot boxes nudge students to find a tasty vegetable.

Printing ballots and counting responses requires a bit of extra work; however, ballots are great tools for quantifying the number of students who like and might purchase an item. Download ballots here.

Vote Often.

Unlike upcoming November elections, we want our constituents to vote often. A reoccurring process of asking students to provide feedback creates a shared experience in healthful eating. It also reinforces student, and staff, willingness to try new menu items.

Three Tips to Build High Voter Turnout

Regardless of the voting technique, we want high levels of participation. Maximize participation by following these simple tips:

  1. Make it convenient. Incorporate the polling station into the flow of regular meal service.
  1. Reward the act of voting. Stickers are a great way to say thank you. Download “I Voted” stickers here.
  1. Share the election results. Voting is a process, not a single act. An important part of the process is sharing results with the voters and putting their feedback into action. Knowing that your vote counts increases the likelihood of future voting. To share results with students, try one of these ideas:
  • Report the results in the morning announcements – make it fun, like reporting the results of a sporting activity;
  • Post a picture of the winning item at the entrance of the school or cafeteria;
  • Place a blue ribbon by the item when it appears on the serving line.

Let’s go Ohio! Go to the resource section of the blog to download stickers, ballots, and a taste test getting started guide.

The stakes are high. The outcomes are huge. Please – Vote Now. Vote Often.

Lunchroom Lingo


The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is one of the largest food service operations in the country, serving nearly 30 million students annually. In Ohio, roughly one million meals are served daily at over 4,000 sites across the state.

School lunches provide kids with a nutritious meal, which has been shown to improve focus and academic performance. Daily participation in the School Lunch Program helps develop healthy eating behaviors that children can carry into adulthood. The NSLP also provides opportunities for introducing kids to new foods they may not be experiencing at home. Introduction to new food items can broaden the range of student selection, which can ensure they are eating an adequate, well-balanced diet.

NSLP Photo

While the benefits of school meals are commonly known, some of the terminology within meal programs can be confusing. Here is some lingo that can help you become a school nutrition advocate:

Reimbursable Meal – In order for a lunch to be considered complete, five food items must be offered to students (milk, fruit, vegetable, protein, and grain). For the meal to be considered reimbursable, students must select at least three full portions of the five offered items, with at least one choice being a fruit or vegetable.

All reimbursable meals qualify for government reimbursement if they follow USDA requirements and nutrition standards, are served to eligible students, and are priced as a whole meal rather than individual food items. Reimbursement is provided through the United States Department of Agriculture, as federal and state cash payments. Reimbursement amount depends on student eligibility – free, reduced, or paid.

Free, Reduced and Paid Meals – Kids eligible for free meals come from families with an income at or below 130% (roughly $31,005/yr. for a family of 4) of the poverty level. Those eligible for reduced priced meals come from families with an income between 130% and 185% (roughly $44,123/yr. for a family of 4) of the poverty level. Kids from families above 185% of the poverty level pay full price for their school lunch.

NSLP reimbursement rates for 2014/2015 school year:

  • Free lunches: $2.93
  • Reduced price lunches: $2.53
  • Paid lunches: $0.28
  • Free snacks: $0.80
  • Reduced price snacks: $0.40
  • Paid snacks: $0.07
  • Schools certified as meeting the new nutrition standards receive an additional $.06 per lunch.
  • An additional $.02 per lunch is provided to schools in which 60 percent or more of the second preceding school year lunches were served free or reduced price.

Program Fact Sheet, National School Lunch Program, 2014 data

A la Carte

A la carte items are any food or beverage not sold as a part of reimbursable meals. These items cannot be purchased or included under free or reduced lunch meal eligibility.

Offer vs. Serve (OVS) – Pre-plated meals serve all food components, in the appropriate proportions, and contain the minimum daily requirements under the meal pattern guidelines. Family style meals allow students to serve themselves and give them the choice of selection, with the supervision of cafeteria staff.

The ultimate goal of OVS is to provide students with a wide variety of selection, while reducing excessive amounts of waste.

Certification of Compliance – School districts that fall under the certification of compliance with the new NSLP meal requirements are eligible for an additional 6-cents per lunch reimbursement. This additional reimbursement, provided through the Hunger-Free Kids Act, incentivizes districts to improve the quality of school meals.

Community Eligibility Provisions (CEP) – Schools and local educational agencies with high rates of poverty are able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

For more definitions of terms related to the school meal programs, check out the glossary provided by the National Food Service Management Institute. For further information on school meal trends and stats, take a look at the USDA – National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet.

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