Across the country, “back to school” brings to mind students scurrying around in the last days of summer, frantically preparing to change course and buckle down to work. But before those students wander back to a structure of school and study, someone else has long been back at work, making preparations that educational systems cannot do without – school nutritionists.
Ashley Powell is the child nutrition director for Auburn City Schools. Brindlea Griffin heads up child nutrition, health services, and community education for the Phenix City School System. Both have connections to the Adult Education program in the COE’s Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and Technology; Powell is a doctoral candidate, and Griffin earned her doctorate there, Finally. both have long family histories associated with Auburn.
“Both of my parents are graduates of the College of Education,” Powell said. “Even my grandfather graduated from Auburn so this is definitely a family tradition!”
Likewise, both of Griffin’s parents are Auburn grads, including her mother, whose M.Ed came from the College of Education. Griffin herself is a five-time Auburn graduate.
Similarities, differences between Auburn and Phenix City
In terms of their job duties, passions, and the number of students they serve, Griffin and Powell have much in common.
Griffin presently serves as president of the Alabama School Nutrition Board; Powell is the incoming vice-president. In these roles they both promote the importance of school nutrition statewide, and place a heavy emphasis on professional development for their colleagues. Phenix City serves about 7,000 students, Auburn about 8,000.
A big difference in their respective systems, however, points up another aspect of school nutrition that plays an increasingly critical role in Alabama and across the country: students who live with food insecurity.
“While Auburn only has about 30 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, in Phenix City we have closer to 70 percent,” Griffin explained. “And we don’t stop serving just because the school year ends. This past summer we served 38,000 meals to the kids in our community. We have ten serving sites, including housing authority locations, parks and rec locations, and two of our schools. These meals include breakfast and lunch.”
Griffin said many, maybe most, of these children would have no food at all if it weren’t for this service.
“Listen, I worry about these kids in the week we take off in May and July,” she said. “When they come back to us after that week, you can tell who hasn’t had anything to eat. There are no picky eaters there. They appreciate everything we have to serve them.”
Both systems have backpack food programs every Friday to ensure their students will have food over the weekend. This is especially true for grades K-5, as the older children often feel peer pressure and stigma about taking food home. Much of this support comes from churches. The Jason Duffner Foundation feeds lots of kids in Auburn.
Griffin also noted there is less plate waste at “hungrier” schools.
To ensure that stigma is not part of the daily lunch line routine, each student has a PIN number that is entered at check out, so no one can tell if they are receiving free or reduced lunch.
“There’s no sort of overt identification in that sense,” Griffin said. “Also, all of our cashiers know all of our students, which is very important. If one of our diabetic students has something on their tray that they shouldn’t have, the cashiers send them back. The same with a kid who might have a particular food allergy. Of course, we couldn’t run operations this large without a great staff that totally buys in to what we are doing. We love our staff, and they love our kids. That’s one of the really great things that goes on every day.”
As society changes, so does school nutrition
Back in the day, everyone ate the same thing, system-wide, like it or not. That’s no longer the case.
“We have five separate lines every day for our students,” said Powell. “On any given day we’ll have chicken fingers, pizza, and sandwiches, along with a grab-and-go line and a salad box. We always have a la carte items, as well as a hot bar that might have burgers and fries and spaghetti. We also have fresh fruits and vegetables every day, yogurt, and every kind of milk you can imagine to build bone health. And that’s just the lunch. We also have breakfast at all of our schools.”
Improved child nutrition is the focus of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which establishes nutrition standards for schools. Both Griffin and Powell know that healthy eating can make it hard to please picky eaters.
“Customer service and marketing our food to our students is a big part of our job,” Powell said. “The food must be good, it must be safe and nutritious, and it must be food they want to eat. If you think about it, school nutrition is the only part of a school system that must be run like a business. We need revenue, so we must successfully market our product.”
Nutritionists also work to educate students about healthy eating.
“I think schools are often blamed for childhood obesity, but that is not because of the food we serve,” Griffin remarked. “We have always served fresh, healthy food and will continue to do so.”
Both women also emphasize the importance of their professional staffs. With hundreds of students filing through the lunch lines in 20-minute shifts, it’s high pressure.
“To do this job well you’ve got to have your heart in it,” Griffin said. “Our staff comes in early, at 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning. Of course they know and love the kids, but it’s still a tough job. Part of our marketing is to be fun for the kids to be around. You can’t come in here and be frumpy and grumpy!”
Griffin said her staff members have “hearts as big as Alabama!”
“I can’t overemphasize the importance of our lunchroom staff,” she concluded. “They work hard and don’t make a lot of money, but many times I’ve seen our staff members take money out of their own pockets for kids in need. A lot of times they might know more about what’s going on in a kid’s life than the classroom teacher does. Many of our kids come from single parent homes where the mom or dad work several jobs and there’s just not a lot of structure. You hate it when you see a kid crying because they have to leave school and go home. But you know what? We’re always here to greet them the next morning, first thing, with a good hot breakfast. And that makes it all worthwhile.”