• By Julie Stefanski
  • In Uncategorized
  • October 8, 2017

Pittsburgh Schools Aim for Less Waste & Better Nutrition with Smarter Lunchrooms Movement

By Michelle Algeo, RDN, PAND Media Team

As the Health and Nutrition Coordinator for Pittsburgh Public Schools, Elizabeth Henry, MS, RD, LDN has a pearl of wisdom to offer any school district or other organization considering conducting a plate waste study: Do it. But be prepared to be floored by the results.

“We did a plate waste study, and it was really heart-wrenching because we know that there’s a ton of waste, but to actually quantify it is painful. But it was really great because we see that we put out these vegetables on the line and so few kids are taking them, and fewer are actually eating them.” This is how Elizabeth explains the impetus for launching the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

It’s a program devised by the Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program and the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. As Elizabeth puts it, “The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is designed to get kids not to just put broccoli on their plate, but to put broccoli on their plate and eat it.”

The Movement is all based on the Smarter Lunchrooms Scorecard, which provides 60 low-cost or no-cost strategies for getting kids to take and eat healthier items in the cafeteria, ultimately providing better nutrition and reducing food waste. Each strategy is evidence-based, from simple suggestions like having cafeteria staff smile and greet students warmly, to more time-consuming options, such as creating and displaying colorful signs or menu boards.

Elizabeth and her team  were fortunate enough to receive a $10,000 grant from the Highmark Foundation two years in a row that enabled them to move forward with some of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement’s low-cost strategies across Pittsburgh’s 56 public schools. However, she notes that it’s entirely possible to make changes without any budget at all since many of the strategies are no-cost.

The Pittsburgh Public School District allotted less than $200 to each school. This was enough to subtly transform cafeterias in ways that touched the approximately 19,000 students who buy lunch in the district daily. “We did one at a time. We rolled out one thing per month. We went to schools and we worked with the staff.” They started by renaming vegetables whose traditional monikers were a bit lackluster. Carrots, for instance, became “X Ray Vision Carrots.” Pictured to the right are “Apple Bliss Broccoli Salad” and “Sweet Pink Watermelon.”

The next step? Getting kids to drink their milk—sans the added sugar. Instead of ousting all chocolate milk and strawberry milk, the Pittsburgh Public Schools simply enhanced the standing of white milk by sticking it in a place of prominence on the lunch line and adding few visual aids for some flair. The flavored milks, meanwhile, stayed tucked away in the coolers.

Next, they worked to make produce look a bit more appealing to pint-sized eaters. They arranged fresh pieces of fruit in eye-catching bowls along the line, allowing the healthy treats to sell themselves. And then finally, Elizabeth and her staff revamped menu boards, making them cute and colorful and highlighting the renamed veggies and the entree of the day.

After pouring nearly a year of her career into implementing this program, and receiving the early anecdotal evidence of its success, Elizabeth has only positive things to say about the experience. “We’re hearing things like, ‘It looks like a restaurant now!’” But she does have some advice to offer any school district or organization interested in implementing strategies from the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement.

“My biggest words of wisdom would be to definitely do one thing at a time. Because then you can also measure changes. If you implement 10 things, you’re not going to be able to say, ‘Okay, this thing worked, but the other things didn’t.’” She also highly recommends making the most of interns. She credits a grad student from Chatham University, who was working under her in 2015, with doing much of the legwork for the plate waste study.

To read more about the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement—and maybe even find some strategies that would work for your school district or organization—check out the Pittsburgh School Lunches website.

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