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Norwood City Schools' successful nutrition program earns national notice

Food service director participates in Pew panel
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Posted at 12:00 PM, Nov 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-12 12:00:57-05

CINCINNATI -- Students at Norwood City Schools are learning to eat their vegetables -- and enjoy them -- thanks to the school district’s nutrition department, which has received national notice as a model for the rest of the country to follow.

Roger Kipp, Norwood’s director of food services and nutrition, was selected for a panel conducted by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a joint initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The panelists met to discuss what’s working in their schools, and their recommendations have been included in the project’s fact sheet on helping students eat healthfully.

Kipp, who has a culinary and restaurant management background, and his staff, including dietician Liz Hiller, have successfully eliminated many processed foods from Norwood Schools' menu and replaced them with wholesome, healthful foods. More than 60 percent of all foods served are made from scratch.

While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2012 required an overhaul to all of the nation's lunchroom offerings by reducing sodium and sugar and adding whole grains, among other things, Kipp was already making those changes. One of his first moves when he came to the district seven years ago was to eliminate the "snack shack" and vending machines full of chips, nachos, soda and cookies. Although he received some complaints, he soldiered on with what he believed: That providing kids with only healthful food options will help them adapt to those foods more quickly and easily. If the candy bar isn’t even a choice, you have to choose something that is available, he said.

And, Kipp said, it worked.

When kids no longer had the a la carte junk food options to choose from, more of them went through the lunch line and bought a well-balanced, healthful meal. Before eliminating a la carte options, about 50 percent of students purchased a lunch. Now, that number is closer to 60 percent, he said. Breakfast participation was 18 percent in 2010, and today it’s 38 percent.

While he could have created cookies or chips -- or bought them pre-packaged -- that met the new national standards, Kipp felt like that would have been a mistake. His goal is to educate and change habits, not just provide food.

"You can serve a whole-grain Pop Tart that meets the guidelines, but it is still a Pop Tart. If little Sarah goes home and says, 'I ate a Pop Tart at school,' mom thinks Pop Tarts are healthy and buys them at the grocery story, not realizing that these are specifically manufactured for the school, so now Sarah is eating regular Pop Tarts every day at home," Kipp said. "For us, we just won’t sell those types of products."

Although Kipp eliminated a lot of the familiar processed snack food options and only offers full meals, there are still plenty of choices for the students each day. Kids can choose from three entrée selections, a sandwich or salad, plus 10 fruit and vegetable options. They also offer students three roasted, seasoned vegetables every day, which Kipp said has been a hit. He added that when they serve roasted Brussels sprouts, that option sells out immediately. Yes, really.

Norwood City Schools food service director Roger Kipp, decked out in a Dr. Seuss hat, reads “Green Eggs and Ham" as part of the department's outreach to encourage children to make healthy food choices. Photo provided

A big part of Kipp’s mission is to educate students -- and their families -- about healthful eating. He feels that it is part of his job as the director of food services in an educational environment.

Schools aren’t only for teaching students how to read and write, but also how to interact with others, work together and work independently – and how to eat and take care of yourself, Kipp said.

Just like a restaurant, you can't introduce a new recipe to a school and just hope that everyone will eat it, Kipp said. Instead, you have to test it on your audience. New foods and new recipes are often given as samples to students, who are then asked for feedback.

Kipp, Hiller and their dietetics interns from the University of Cincinnati regularly visit the classrooms at Norwood's six schools with programming for all ages, from a "two-bite club" where preschoolers make and try new foods, all the way up to high schoolers who learn how to read a food label or how much water they need after exercise, Hiller said.

The challenge remains when trying to make healthful foods that appeal to kids’ palettes, but Norwood has had success.

"We are particularly proud of our Cincinnati-style chili recipe," Hiller said. "It tastes like Cincinnati chili but it is actually vegetarian with lentil beans. We didn’t tell the kids at first that it was vegetarian, but eventually we did and they are accepting of it."

Additionally, a from-scratch Sloppy Joe sandwich recipe is also a favorite. Avoiding the processed sauce keeps sodium levels down and also allows room to add various pureed vegetables, which amp up the nutritional density, Hiller said.

The Pew panel determined -- with input from Kipp and food service directors around the country -- that students ate more fruits and vegetables when they had more options available, like salad bars and a variety of cut fruit. The panel also showcases the success that programs like Norwood have when they allow students to give input or help create new recipes.

"The most important theme from all the food service directors -- who view themselves as a business -- is that they constantly need to innovate and be creative with what they are doing in the cafeteria," said Stephanie Scarmo, Pew’s child nutrition expert. "In most cases, the cafeteria is the largest restaurant in town, so they are serving some of the toughest customers every single day. What we learned is that engaging students with taste tests and student recipe competitions where the recipe is then featured as a menu item, those are the most successful strategies."