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Three Kansas school districts recognized for high-quality summer meals service

Posted: Apr 11, 2022
Author: Ann Bush

Applications still being accepted for Summer Food Service Program sponsors

Three Kansas school districts have recently been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service for their outstanding meal programs.

The Turnip the Beet award recognizes sponsors within the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)  and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option that go above and beyond program requirements to serve high-quality meals to children during the summer months.

For the 2021 summer, 84 sponsors from across the United States qualified for either a gold, silver or bronze Turnip the Beet award. Only 14 sponsors qualified for a gold award, according to the USDA. Fifty-four qualified for a silver award, and 16 qualified for a bronze award.

Each Kansas’ Turnip the Beet awardee received recognition in the SFSP category. Haven Unified School District 312 received gold, and Gardner Edgerton USD 231 and Wamego USD 320 received silver.

Sponsors can self-nominate or can be nominated by another party. USDA’s Food and Nutrition then evaluates and scores the nominations. Nominations must clearly illustrate how the meals are appetizing, appealing and nutritious.

The Kansas districts that were selected highlight local produce in their Summer Food Service Programs, according to Barb Depew, Farm to Plate project director for the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE).

“These are some of our shining stars,” Depew said. “They go beyond the level of expectation.”

Haven USD 312

To kick off the SFSP and to celebrate the Farm to Table program at Haven USD 312, the district in May hosts a communitywide event that focuses on all the local farm fresh items served within the district, said Sheree Jones, food service director for Haven. The event draws about 600 people.

“Our high school FFA and ag groups provided hands-on educational booths that included live animals, farm equipment to teach farm safety, and a planting station where the kids learned about how food grows from seed to harvest. There were hay wagon rides, and the physical education teacher had over 10 activity booths that included a maze, four-square volleyball and an obstacle course. The highlight of the day was a barbecue featuring local beef burgers cooked by our local police, fire and paramedics.”

Even during the kick-off event, the district featured locally produced items, including whole grain hamburger buns made by a local baker and fresh lettuce and tomatoes grown in the district’s greenhouse. Ice cold 1 percent milk from the local Hiland dairy was served, and Rolling Moo – a local ice cream store – rolled up real local milk treats to round out the meal.

For the SFSP, Haven serves in four different locations – Partridge and Yoder in Reno County; Mount Hope in Sedgwick County; and Haven Grade School in Reno. Six nutrition staff members serve during the summer – seven during the school year.

Last summer, the district served 300 grab-and-go breakfasts and 300 grab-and-go lunches each day, Jones said.

The district’s nutrition services department relies a lot on local produce.

“In this day and time, it’s getting harder and harder to get even the basics,” Jones said. “We can ease the burden of supply chains if people realize they can go local. These are our families. It comes full circle. The school supports the farmers, and the farmers support the school.

A few years ago, the district received a sizeable grant to add a greenhouse, according to Jones. About three years ago, staff members and students began growing leaf lettuce for the high school kitchen.

“Since then, the cooks have gotten more involved,” Jones said. “We’re learning right along with the kids. The outcome is incredible.”

This year, staff members planted broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, leaf lettuce and spinach.

Receiving a gold award for the work she and her staff puts in is incredible,” Jones said.

“We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The staff is so dedicated. To be chosen as a gold medal school is beyond belief. It’s what we do – we take care of our kids. They are our most important asset.”

Gardner Edgerton USD 231

Every week during the summer of 2021, Amy Droegemeier, director of nutrition services for Gardner Edgerton USD 231, and her staff members would hand out meal kits consisting of 14 meals to 2,500 youths. That’s a total of 30,000 meals per week.

The district served the meal kits curbside on Tuesdays, and staff members would begin their days at 10 a.m. Those days often didn’t end until 6 p.m.

“We would be consistently busy,” Droegemeier said.

Participating families could choose from three different meal kit options – Greatest Hits, which included students’ favorite entrees; Meatless Mix, which included vegetarian options; and Fridge Filler, a rotation of creative options, including a week of sandwich items, grilled items, such as hot dogs or hamburgers, or Mexican kits for nachos.

“This variety allowed our families – especially those with multiple children – to tailor their selections to their weekly plans and children’s appetites,” Droegemeier said.

In addition to the meal kits, families received half gallons of 1% chocolate milk and/or half gallons of 1% white milk. Families could select their preference at the time of preordering. The district gave out 5,000 half gallons of milk per week. The meals kits included local fresh fruit and vegetables, too. One farmer provided tiny watermelons, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

“We had some really great help from our community partners, too,” Droegemeier said. “Walmart loaned us 20 carts (to help with curbside deliveries), and Price Chopper would sell us items at cost if we couldn’t get it. Teachers helped, too. It was a really great partnership throughout the community.”

From March 2020 through July 2021, the district in total served 1.6 million meals, Droegemeier said. There are about 60 food service workers on staff at Gardner Edgerton, with between 40 and 45 serving during the summer. This summer, the district will return to the traditional model of serving meals on-site.

Winning a silver award was exciting for the district, according to Droegemeier.

“I think I’m most excited for my staff. I have a team who embraces thinking differently. We always dream bigger than what the bare minimum is,” Droegemeier said. “They gave selflessly these past two years. They did everything they could to meet our kids where they were. They were all in from the beginning until the last meal we served.”

Wamego USD 320

Laura Fails served not only as the food service director for Wamego USD 320 this past summer, she also wrote scripts and starred in demonstration videos filmed at the district’s kitchen. It was all part of the Cooks and Books program – a partnership between the district and the local library to make sure kids were well fed and educated during the 2021 summer.

Wamego USD 320 decided to not serve daily meals for the 2021 SFSP. Instead, there were two distribution days – Mondays and Thursdays. On Mondays, participants received three days’ worth of meals (breakfast and lunch), and on Thursdays, they would receive four days’ worth of meals. Participants could pick up meals from the city park or the district kitchen.

The meals included fresh fruits and vegetables, including cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, carrots and full heads of lettuce.

“We were able to incorporate fresh, local produce to the best of our ability,” Fails said. “We are a small, rural community, so we included as much local garden produce as possible since many of our participants are familiar with agriculture and farming.”

In total, 50,127 meals were distributed during the nine-week Summer Food Service program.

Fails worked with the library to introduce the Cooks and Books program. On Tuesdays, children could visit the library to pick up a Take and Make bag, which included ingredients, a recipe card and nutrition education material about the recipe of the week. Fails and her husband created a demonstration video for each week.

The six-week program also included locally sourced ingredients . For example, local honey was used in a recipe for energy bites, and local strawberries were used for strawberry banana splits. The videos included recommended library books based on the recipe theme. There were book recommendations for every age level – even adults.

“We started out thinking we’d make 50 bags for each day,” Fails said. “Within 10 minutes on the first day, we were out.”

They increased the number of Make and Take bags to 80. In total, there were nearly 500 Take and Make bags.

Before the Cooks and Books program kicked off, toolkits, which included measuring cups, spatulas, a cutting board and more, were offered to families.

“We were aware some of our families may not have every item they need in their kitchen to make the recipe,” Fails said.

There were 100 toolkits handed out.

“I was over the moon,” Fails said about the award. “I’m so proud of my team and the work they did. It is great to receive acknowledgement that this is important – that this is hard work. I’m proud of our program, proud of our staff and proud of our community.”

Summer Food Service Program sponsors

Just as learning doesn’t end when school lets out for the summer, neither does the need for good nutrition. SFSP provides free, nutritious meals and snacks to help children get the nutrition they need.

The Food and Nutrition Service administers SFSP at the federal level. State education agencies, such as KSDE, administer the program. Locally, the program is run by approved sponsors. Sponsors provide free meals to a group of children at a central site, and, in return, receive payments from USDA through their state agency for the meals they serve to children at eligible sites.

Schools, public agencies and private nonprofit organizations can apply to become a sponsor and receive reimbursement for food service to enhance an education or recreation program. Applications are due May 1.

For more information on how to become a sponsor, visit https://www.kn-eat.org/SFSP/SFSP_Menus/SFSP_Home.htm.

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