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Q&A with Donna Martin, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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Donna Martin is president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and director of the Burke County (GA) school nutrition program. She speaks to Thomas Lawrence about the landscape for school foodservice, challenges ahead and trends to look out for

What have your main priorities been since becoming president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics?

I happen to be the first school nutrition director to be president of the academy. Typically it’s an educator or a hospital dietitian. I’ve tried to use that role to increase awareness about what the changes are going on in school nutrition and trying to make more dietitians get into the area of school nutrition and work in the area because it’s an opportunity to do a lot of prevention. If we can teach kids to eat healthier, they will grow up to be healthier adults and we can turn this childhood and adult obesity issue around. We just did a new strategic plan and part of that looks much more into sustainability and food being a way of transforming the health of Americans.

What sort of things have you been pushing for?

Next week we’re going up to D.C. to talk about equipment needs. There’s a bill being introduced into Congress that will provide loans for school districts that not only need equipment but don’t have the infrastructure either. We’re asking schools to prepare all these great meals and cook from scratch, but I was at a school district in Pennsylvania and none of the schools had a steamer in the entire county. The best school had one single stack convection oven. Here in my district we have a tremendous amount of equipment– walk in coolers, freezers, combis, tilting skillets, convection ovens – we are capable of scratch-making rolls and bread and doing home-cooked meals. But we have the cooler space and freezer space. So my role as president of the academy gives me the opportunity to push the agenda forward and bring attention to the plight of schools.

What problems have you identified around perception of school meals?

Sometimes dietitians don’t recommend people eat at school. They say packing a lunch is healthier. But in districts like mine you can’t pack a healthier lunch than I can provide for the kids. We’re trying to make people understand that school lunches have really changed from the days of mystery meat and slapping something on a plate. There are many more choices and we’re becoming much more like restaurants, working in consulting. We’ve got to make it exciting with merchandising and offering more innovative choices.

Since becoming president of the academy, what have you noticed about regional inequalities?

In Georgia our school districts do pretty well, but if you go up in the North East or the West they don’t have kitchen equipment. Here in the South we have a high proportion of student on free and reduced meals; when your kids are below the poverty line you have more money. When you go to districts with a higher socioeconomic status they have less kitchen equipment. And yet those kids are used to eating more sophisticated foods – in the high free and reduced areas kids aren’t as used to sushi and edamame and all those kinds of things.

Do any particular areas stick out?

Out in California a lot of schools don’t have any equipment. In Minneapolis-Saint Paul, half of those have kitchen equipment and they’re working every year to increase equipment little by little so they can scratch cook in schools without having to cook centrally. I’m going to Syracuse on Thursday and they have a real need for kitchen equipment. I want to make sure people in the lunchroom have the equipment they need to do what I want done for the students. We just went to a school district in Louisville, Kentucky, and they didn’t have sharp knives to cut up stuff. So district by district it can be different things.

Some, for example the School Nutrition Association, have criticized Obama-era legislation aimed at introducing healthy eating in schools for being ineffective and counterproductive. What’s your take on this now that legislation is due to be relaxed?

I don’t think we need the postponement at all. I think the majority of the districts are not going to take advantage of it. The districts that didn’t prepare for it and starting putting out whole wheat hamburger and hotdog buns and the kids had never eaten anything whole wheat in their life were revolted. I started with my kids working from 2% milk to skimmed milk and now all the kids drink it. In Georgia you can’t even find the 1% milk because no one’s demanding it.

Why do you think postponement is going ahead?

I think Sonny Perdue did it to appease the School Nutrition Association and give them some flexibility. I think most districts aren’t going to roll back, they can’t show hardship and that the kids aren’t eating it. I am concerned the School Nutrition Associaiton is going further, aiming to change standards on coloured vegetables to make red and orange and dark green vegetables optional – that I think would be a real disaster.

Why is the School Nutrition Association keen on more deregulation?

They say it’s too expensive and kids are throwing food in the trash. I as a dietitian was serving them before the Hunger Free Kids Act. We don’t have any problems selling black-eyed peas and butterbeans; our kids eat it up. It’s not an issue for us but if you don’t have any kitchen equipment you might be limited in what you can make and serve and do. You put a director in there who’s a dietitian or really cares about the health of the children, and they’re going to serve a variety of fruits and vegetables, making sure the kids are eating healthy and being creative.

How can directors actually make sure there’s significant uptake of healthy foods when it’s on offer?

We’d never serve a whole apple or orange – we cut up everything. It’s simple things you can do like that. The School Nutrition Association say they’re listening to their members, but there are lots of Midwest districts where there are only one or two schools and the school nutrition director may be the maintenance and transport director as well. They don’t want to fool with it, they just want to offer pizza and French fries and the kids will be happy. But I’m about teaching kids to eat sprouts and butternut squash and kale, exposing them to these kinds of foods so they grow up liking them.

In addition to deregulation of school lunches, we’ve seen the government take a more laissez-faire approach to foodservice provision for the elderly. What is your view on this shift away from the more interventionist tone of the Obama years?

I think the Republicans are all into local control. When child nutrition reauthorization was on the table two years ago, that’s what was getting ready to happen. The Republicans wanted to give money back to the states and let them run these programs. That would be the end of school nutrition as we know it. If you give $300 million to Georgia they might decide to put it all in lunch and not breakfast, or take more off the top for administrative costs. But let’s say the hurricanes hit Miami and everyone said I’m moving to Georgia – if an extra 300,000 students turn up in the state we wouldn’t have any extra money to serve them. Also Georgia may have one standard for chicken nuggets while South Carolina has another. They wouldn’t be able to deal with 50 different standards different states wanting to do different things. It would be crazy.

So where is the legislative momentum at the moment?

The farm bill is what they’re focusing on, and that is a massive deal. I think child nutrition reauthorization is getting kicked down the road. Until they decide to tackle that we’re not going to see any major changes. There can be regulatory changes – they could go in and relax the standards on vegetables and say for a year you don’t have to serve all the colored vegetables, for example. But I don’t think they could do anything major without a bill. Some districts are struggling financially but I don’t think we should relax standards for everyone else because of that.

There’s a lot of talk about salt restrictions and whether children are getting enough dairy, but the rise of new plant-based diets provides a whole new dimension on old battle lines. Is this the next big trend in school foodservice?

I absolutely see that trend happening all over the country. We’re having meatless Mondays and if you look at the menus there are many more vegetarian options. Even in our little district we have a lot of vegetarians and vegans, and we’re doing hummus and veggie burgers. One of the big trends right now is putting mushrooms in our hamburger meat. Dietitians and school nutrition directors are being so creative – The United Fresh Produce Association has put over 5000 salad bars in schools. I watch all my fellow people and I’m blown away by all the creative things they’re doing.

What hurdles do you anticipate for these innovative solutions?

They have to compete with what kids are getting in the real world. In Minneapolis-Saint Paul they don’t buy any processed meat, it’s all bone-in. They don’t do any chicken nuggets or chicken strips. They do beautiful salads with quinoa and beets, and the kids love it. We share everything as school nutrition directors – recipes, menus, tips, best practices. The Institute of Child Nutrition holds team-up meetings where they bring in directors who are struggling and pair them up with directors doing great things. We’re seeing a revolution – we’re doing much more composting, we’re focusing on waste and making sure kids don’t waste any food. And these kids are amazing – they’re demanding better meals, it’s not just the parents. It’s really exciting to see these trends. Enough people are doing it that it’s going to put pressure on everybody else to make them step up to the plate.

In addition to having healthier options, it sounds like there is lots of demand for more transparency in school foodservice.

I think the USDA’s goal is that you need to be able to look at your plate and know what’s on there. You need to be able to look at the meat, look at the vegetables and know what you’re eating. They’re really big on that and I think that’s great – they used to count bread as a fruit. Change is hard but we’ve come so far and our healthcare system is going to need this change. It’s going to take a couple of generations to turn this around and we need to start now.

What would be your one piece of advice to schools who are struggling to juggle the demands of waste-management, sluggish uptake of healthy foods and growing costs?

Taste testing. That’s how you get kids to eat better. In cooking classes we bring the kids in, they make hummus and tzatziki. We cook Brussels sprouts and stir fry vegetables and they love them. We brought in a whole bunch of different veggie burgers and asked them to pick the ones they liked. Not everybody’s going to love it, but if a big enough percentage of kids love it then you can start turning things around.

Are there any other crucial changes needed to cement healthier food in schools?

We need parents’ support. We need parents to come to the school and try the food – if it says pizza don’t think it’s negative because it’s whole wheat crust and low-fat mozzarella. A lot of schools make homemade pizza with homemade dough and veggies. Homemade French fries are baked rather than fried. Go to the schools, see the food and see what is going on. And volunteer to be on the wellness committees and help make positive changes in your school. That’s what I’d tell parents to do.

Thomas Lawrence