Susan Roberson, school nutrition services director (left) and dietitian Marsha Taylor are leading an RPS food revolution. (Photo by Jay Paul)
In January's issue of Richmond magazine (on newsstands now!), we explore how Richmond Public Schools' new dietitian, Marsha Taylor, is planning to shake things up. Here, find a longer conversation with Susan Roberson, the director of Richmond Public Schools’ nutrition services, and Taylor on the new, healthier school cafeteria menus.
Richmond magazine: The city is gaining attention as a foodie destination, and it looks like the schools are trying to keep up with that reputation. What do you think about local food on school menus?
Roberson: We have received a farm-to-table planning grant, to identify our readiness to include local foods. One of our biggest hurdles is storage. We have no central storage facility to bring in bulk foods and then distribute them. Everything has to be delivered straight to the schools, and that’s a huge logistics problem for small farmers.
Taylor: Think about it this way. We order 1,000 cobs of local corn and it shows up on our doorstep unshucked. Now what do we do? Our staff can’t shuck all that corn, and then have corn on the cob ready in time for lunch. The products have to be processed, to a degree. There will be a little gap between farm and table, when we include local products.
RM: Are you concerned that students might not be able to afford — or like — fancy dishes?
Roberson: Thanks to the Community Eligibility Program, many students don’t have to pay for meals. Ninety-seven percent of all those meals are reimbursed by the federal government. All reimbursements are invested back in the cafeteria. We’re on a shoestring budget, too.
Taylor: This is a large part of my new job. In the Columbia (South Carolina) school system, I managed over 40 school cafeterias, like in Richmond. You have to be gradual about introducing healthy options. Whole grain pizza crust, for example. You have to understand the kids’ cultural background. Richmond is less Deep South, more diverse. Everybody seems to love fresh food, though. Fresh peaches are better than canned peaches. Our salad bars are a hit. Being gradual with staff is important, too, when you’re training them.
RM: Speaking of staff, might some of them revolt against the new changes? Cafeteria cooks across the country have been debating the new federal nutrition guidelines.
Roberson: Training these cooks will be a serious challenge. We have limited time to roll out these new measures because, before you know it, the school year’s over. Six hours a day, that’s what we have. But I want to say that RPS has been compliant all the way with the National School Lunch Program. There’s a meal pattern for each grade group, and we measure out the calories, sodium, fat. And, you know, that’s why we hired Marsha, to mobilize the troops on Day 1.
Taylor: I told the staff, “Throw out everything you know. We’re doing a 180-degree turn.” People have been excited, reluctant, frustrated, all of the above. Some have embraced it, some haven’t. You’ve got cooks that have been here for 30 or 40 years, you know?
RM: What has been the reaction from city officials?
Roberson: We had some institutional support up front. I was part of the mayor’s food policy task force, which was established in 2011. Our report recommended more local produce in school cafeterias, for starters. I developed that largely because we’re working with food deserts. I wanted school cafeterias to be part of the community, to be pivotal in introducing kids to fresh food.
RM: Will the students have any say in these new menus?
Taylor: Absolutely. That’s a crucial goal of mine, more inclusion of the students. We’re creating student nutrition advisory councils, first at high schools, then at lower grades. Students will get to be “red hat ambassadors.” That means acting as liaisons between peers, food service workers, and administrators. That means taste-testing products and other input opportunities. We expect to find lots of student volunteers, particularly those interested in culinary school or nutrition. They will carry this valuable experience into their future.