In her 14 years as the child nutrition director for the USD 383 Manhattan-Ogden school district, Stephanie Smith has made strides toward healthier and more sustainable school meals.

Smith wants schools to provide better quality food with better quality ingredients for their students, although the process of getting there has had its ups and downs.

“It’s had a lot of changes since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I know when I first started, we used some of the central kitchen to produce scratch-made items. And then as labor became an issue when the pandemic hit, we went completely in the opposite direction because of facility needs and staffing needs.

“Now, we’re trying to take the shift back to homemade scratch items, and we’re trying to include locally-grown items as well.”

Smith said preparing meals from scratch helps for children with allergies. This way, there is more control over what goes into the food and more knowledge about what is in the product.

The child nutrition team often introduces new items to the menu.

“The toughest part is getting the kids sometimes to try new things that they haven’t been exposed to,” Smith said.

Smith said his team is more accepting of baked goods, such as chocolate bread.

She also said the team gets ideas for new dishes from the USDA’s recipe box and the Chef Ann Foundation’s lunch box tools. Everything is served at least twice to gauge interest.

“School nutrition is a very collaborative group across the nation,” Smith said. “Sometimes even in some of the Facebook groups that I’m in for child nutrition, people have new recipes that they’re trying.”

Smith said she sometimes finds a recipe online and then tweaks it to meet the school nutrition standards for whole grain and low sodium.

USD 383’s child nutrition department works with local farmers and ranchers for products like Wagyu beef. The department gets flour from K-State’s milling science program. Smith has sent out information calling on any farms whose owners want to get involved.

Changing up tools to be more sustainable has been a focus as well.

Smith said the schools have switched from styrofoam trays to compostable fiber ones. Now that the schools are almost fully staffed again, they have also gone back to using reusable silverware instead of the disposable kind.

“We had a little bit of a struggle getting the kids on board with the silverware,” Smith said. “That still is a little bit of an issue. We have a lot of silverware that gets put in the trash.”

Under Smith, the schools have been involved in more programs, including the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a federal program that provides more produce. Schools also have provided meals for the At-risk Supper Program and expanded the Summer Feeding Program from five to nine feeding sites.

“I think the biggest change since I’ve become director is just the number of programs we run as well,” Smith said. “Any program the district is eligible for, we try to include that as a benefit to our families.”

Recently, Smith and the child nutrition team won the Dave Colburn Green Apple Award for its sustainable practices and community outreach.

“We’re very honored,” Smith said. “It was very much a welcome surprise. We’re in support services, so we work behind the scenes. A lot of the time, we get forgotten about because we’re just part of the daily routine, so it was very nice to be honored by that award.”

At this time, the child nutrition department employees about 50 people. There are a couple staff positions open for the kitchen and a few positions open at the school cafeterias for the next school year.

“I have a wonderful team,” Smith said. “They are very good at their jobs. We all try to be very efficient. I have a team that is very caring. They want to do a good job. They know what they do is important for the kids.”

USD 383’s nutrition team makes strides toward healthy, sustainable school meals | News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *