Cabell County Schools Leaders Invited to The White House to Discuss Food Service Program Success
By Jedd Flowers, Director of Communications
A delegation of Cabell County Schools administrators had the “immense privilege” of being invited to The White House Thursday, October 27, 2016 to share the story of the district’s school meal transformation.
Superintendent William Smith, Assistant Superintendent James Colegrove, Food Service Director Rhonda McCoy, and Communications Director Jedd Flowers received personal invitations to a meet with Debra Eschmeyer, Executive Director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative and Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy at The White House.
Mrs. Eschmeyer led the group on a personal tour of the grounds, First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, and The White House Kitchen. Along the way, the Cabell County representatives were able to share with Eschmeyer both the successes and challenges they have faced as they, and many other members of the Cabell County Schools family, have worked to ensure better quality meals for students.
“We were both honored and humbled to be guests of The White House,” says William Smith, Superintendent of Cabell County Schools. “Our district has been on a journey for several years to improve the quality and availability of nutritious meals for students. During our visit, we discovered our nation’s leaders have been closely monitoring our progress, and they shared with us just how proud they are of our school district for persevering through the challenges we faced, and for continuing to demonstrate dedication to doing what is in the best interest of our students.”
Superintendent Smith says that the success of Cabell County’s program would not be possible without support received from employees and school leaders at every level including Food Service Director Rhonda McCoy, Food Service Department employees, the school cooks, principals, district administrators, Treasurer Jody Lucas, and both current and former Board members. Most recently, the Board of Education approved providing free meals for all the district’s students as part of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
“I can’t say the work has always been easy,” says Superintendent Smith. “We have struggled to make the right financial decisions, our cooks had to embrace brand new procedures and techniques for preparing recipes, and we’ve had several people along the way who told us it just couldn’t be done. But I am proud to say the employees, leaders, parents, and community members of Cabell County Schools care deeply about students, and they have consistently proven that care by working together to improve the quality of their lives.”
Trouble on the Horizon
In the early 2000’s district leaders were beginning to recognize that the student population was gradually growing unhealthier as the number of children diagnosed with Type II diabetes began to rise. In cooperation with local health care providers, the district began to test and monitor students for obesity, incidence of diabetes, and several other health indicators. When there was an opening for a new Food Service Director, Rhonda McCoy, a trained Dietician, was hired and charged with developing menus that would help to improve these students’ health.
McCoy began by creating menus for schools that decreased fat, decreased calories, decreased sodium, and increased fiber. She also worked to ensure essential nutrients such as Calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C were provided at appropriate levels. Despite some initial resistance from students, she removed deep fryers from all the schools, converted smorgasbords to salad and fruit bars, eliminated salt packets, and reduced the use of sugary condiments such as ketchup.
McCoy continued to work to update and customize Cabell County’s menus. She offered cooks extensive training in preparing fresh foods, replaced white bread items with those made from whole wheat, and introduced more fresh fruits and vegetables to the menus. By 2010, the district was already preparing approximately 50% of its menu items from scratch using raw, fresh ingredients.
Change on the State and National Levels
As Cabell County Schools was improving its own menus, the issue of school nutrition was gaining more attention at the state and national levels.
Cabell County wasn’t the only district in West Virginia to experience increasing obesity and diabetes rates among its children. In response to the alarming statistics, in 2008, the state of West Virginia’s Office of Child Nutrition unveiled a new set of nutrition standards that exceeded USDA standards in place at the time (Policy 4321.1). Because of the groundwork done by McCoy and the Cabell County Schools Food Service Department staff, the district was able to meet the new state standards immediately.
Then, in 2010, the USDA revised its own school meal nutrition standards. These standards were vastly more stringent, and have continued to be updated and revised since that time.
CDC Names Huntington “Unhealthiest City in America”
In 2008, not long after West Virginia’s new, stricter standards had already been implemented, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report ranking the health condition of residents in 150 metropolitan areas. According to the study, Huntington, West Virginia, the home of Cabell County Schools, was named the unhealthiest city in America. The report stated that nearly half of the area’s population was obese, the area tied other areas for the percentage of residents who don’t exercise at 31%, the number of people with heart disease at 22%, and the number of those with diabetes at 13%.
The news that the city had been named the unhealthiest in America drew attention that was unwanted by many area residents and community leaders. National media outlets put Huntington in the headlines almost daily, and many in the community were quickly trying to identify innovative ways to address the situation. Residents, government officials, and other organizations began working together, developing many far-reaching initiatives that are today encouraging healthier lifestyles and economic growth opportunities for the region’s population. In fact, The City of Huntington recently announced it is one of 50 quarterfinalist communities in the America’s Best Communities competition, a $10 million initiative to stimulate economic revitalization in small towns and cities.
Despite their immediate, concerted efforts, the headlines from 2008 had already garnered the attention of Hollywood, and in 2010, Cabell County Schools, the City of Huntington, and several local health facilities were approached by ABC Television to participate in a reality-based series hosted by British chef, Jamie Oliver. After much discussion among school staff and other local government officials, Superintendent Smith and the other community leaders made the difficult decision to move ahead and cooperate with the production.
“It was quite obvious that the region was already in the national spotlight due to the 2008 CDC report,” says Jedd Flowers, Director of Communications for Cabell County Schools. “While our schools were on track to providing more well-balanced, healthy meals for students, we also understood that their families, friends, and neighbors were still struggling with these deadly health issues. Our leaders decided that, even though it was a bit of a risk, working with the reality show would provide an undeniably powerful and far-reaching opportunity to serve the greater good by further promoting healthier lifestyles in our community and helping to spread a nationwide message that all children deserve quality school meals.”
During the original discussions with the producers of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”, it became apparent to district officials that Oliver’s team expected the state to have inadequate nutrition standards for its schools. Instead, the producers found West Virginia’s standards were among the most stringent in the nation. At that point, Cabell administrators say the emphasis of the producers’ planning began to shift from the state’s nutrition standards to the preparation of food from scratch, utilizing raw ingredients.
“We don’t believe the show accurately portrayed the quality of items our Food Service Program was providing at the time,” says Rhonda McCoy, Food Services Director for Cabell County Schools. “After all, it was a reality television show and not a news documentary. Some of the scenes were staged or modified for entertainment value. Jamie had no measurement from us for how much fat was served in a school year when he dumped a truckload of “fat” on the school lawn. He talked about chicken nuggets at length, but never explained that the particular chicken nuggets we were serving in our schools were made from 100% white breast meat and baked. Our French fries were made from whole potatoes and baked. We were frying nothing at the time, and all of our food met or exceeded state and federal nutrition standards.”
Even though McCoy says the made-from-scratch recipes Oliver was allowed to introduce as part of the show didn’t end up meeting West Virginia’s strict nutrition standards and had to be discontinued, Cabell County’s participation in the program did have some very positive and long- lasting effects.
“We were already well on our way to preparing all of our meals from scratch using fresh, raw ingredients, but Jamie’s show and the awareness it brought to the importance of child nutrition allowed us to move forward much more quickly with our own improvements. Our cooks learned new techniques from Jamie and his team for efficiently preparing scratch food for a large number of students they are still using today. And, the program did put a spotlight on the important role a school cook plays in the quality of life for a child. Overall, we believe the very steady, positive gains our district was able to make as a result of the show far outweighed any frustrations we might have had with the program.”
Raising the Bar
Since 2010, the school system has continued to innovate and refine its recipes and procedures. Shortly after the Oliver television production wrapped, McCoy brought the district’s cooks together and, as a team, they began to develop their own recipes from scratch. The cooks conducted multiple taste tests with students at their own schools, and continued working to increase the appeal of their recipes while ensuring all state and federal guidelines were met. As they improved and refined their own skills, the number of meals prepared from scratch increased and, today, nearly all meals the district serves are prepared from scratch using fresh, raw ingredients.
Cabell County’s cooks’ growing talents soon garnered the attention of then-State Superintendent, Jorea Marple, who asked the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition to invite Cabell County’s Food Service Program to train cooks from other districts in the state on their recipes and processes. The cooks accepted the challenge and, in a few short years, have trained their colleagues from nearly every other county in the state.
The Cabell County cooks have also had the opportunity to share their recipes for audiences outside the state as well. Earlier this month, several cooks were asked to demonstrate recipes for attendees of the annual conference of the National Federation of Urban and Suburban School Districts (NFUSSD), which was hosted by Cabell County Schools.
Probably the most high-profile demonstration of a Cabell County Schools recipe took place when Mary Cook, the head cook from Village of Barboursville Elementary, was invited to represent the county by competing on an episode of ABCs daytime television show, “The Chew”. She impressed special guest, First Lady Michelle Obama, and the judges with the district’s Spaghetti with Meat Sauce recipe, taking first place in the completion.
“In public schools, we have seen many initiatives come and go,” says James Colegrove, Assistant Superintendent over Operations for Cabell County Schools. “For this kind of initiative to work, the cooks have to see the vision, understand why changes are being implemented, and, ultimately, they have to believe in the work they are doing. That is exactly what happened in Cabell County. Rhonda (McCoy) was an excellent communicator and provided the support our cooks needed to be successful. Early on, the cooks had a sense they were in middle of something very important, and time has proven that was indeed the case.”
Building for the Future
Today, in addition to continually improving recipes in order to keep participation rates high, the Cabell County Schools Food Service Program is focused on providing more fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly those raised by local farmers, schools and even student entrepreneurs. McCoy says she is proud that all school buildings in the district now offer salad bars. She has been stocking these and school meals with fresh produce from not only the district’s food distributor, but also a growing number of local farmers. In recent years, the district has been purchasing fresh products including potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, broccoli, and red, yellow, and green peppers. The district has even purchased eggs and other products from student farmers.
“We are trying to establish sustainable sources for these locally-produced goods,” says McCoy. “One of our recent graduates, who we have consistently purchased items from, has decided to make a career out of farming as a result of his experience with our program.”
Of course, McCoy says she would like to see even more students enjoy the benefits of learning to grow their own fresh produce, even if it is simply to feed their own families. With assistance from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, the district has installed High Tunnels at several schools including Village of Barboursville Elementary, Explorer Academy, Huntington East Middle School, Huntington High School and has two more to be constructed soon at Spring Hill Elementary and Milton Elementary. These High Tunnels are greenhouse-style structures that help extend the growing season, allowing students to work in their gardens even in inclement weather.