The Other 60 Percent

“Lunch ladies” fight back

The cover from one in the "Lunch Lady" graphic novel series by Jarrett Krocoszka says it all. Lunch ladies - and kitchen managers and school food service and nutrition directors - are fighting back against a negative public perception.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks school lunchrooms are getting a bad rap – blamed for serving rotten food, creating the childhood obesity epidemic and, ultimately, putting our nation’s very future at risk.

School “lunch ladies” can be forgiven, she said, if they’re starting to take it personally.

“I know how hard you work, from early morning to late in the afternoon to feed Colorado kids,” Hayes told a gathering of 270 of those lunch ladies – and a smattering of “lunch gentlemen” – meeting Saturday in Aurora for the Colorado School Nutrition Association fall conference. “Without the food you make, many of those children simply could not learn.”

Hayes drew applause when she blasted celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – who famously tangled with “Lunch Lady Alice” while attempting to remake the Huntington, W.V. schools’ menu this year for his Food Revolution reality TV series.

Oliver was appalled to find one school – in the city deemed America’s least fit – serving pizza and chocolate milk for breakfast, and chicken nuggets and reconstituted mashed potato “pearls” for lunch. But locals didn’t quickly take to the British chef foisting his ideas onto their kids’ lunch trays.

“It’s really all about Jamie Oliver and Jamie Oliver’s celebrity than about making fundamental changes,” Hayes said.

British TV chef Jamie Oliver has drawn praise and criticism for his efforts to change the menu in some U.S. schools.

“He chose to focus just on the negative things instead of including all the good things that go on there too.” More wild applause. Hayes clearly struck a chord with this group of school nutrition directors, kitchen managers and cooks.

Hayes, a nutrition coach, writes the “Eat Well at School” blog, runs the Nutrition for the Future website and has a Facebook page “School Meals that Rock.” She travels the country talking to dietitians, food service directors and other involved in feeding kids at home and school.

She’s convinced that the current childhood obesity debate is missing the mark.

“Parents point fingers at the schools, and the schools point fingers at the parents, and we all love to point fingers at McDonald’s,” she said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in finger-pointing that we forget to talk about just what our children are eating.”

She worries that far too many children are overfed but undernourished. She points out that 90 percent of teen-age girls and 70 percent of teen-age boys fail to get enough calcium.

Children and teens’ intake of vitamins, folic acid, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and zinc are all well below recommended levels, and the least nourished group in the country is teen-age girls, she said. She lays much of the blame on the nation’s obsession with thinness.

Montana dietitian Dayle Hayes thinks the blame for childhood obesity has been misplaced.

“You see these teen-age girls go through the lunch lines, and they won’t take the meat, they only want a salad or a diet soda,” she said.

She criticized school districts that have banned chocolate-flavored milk, especially now that milk providers are offering low-fat flavored substitutes.

This has been a major controversy in Colorado school nutrition circles, as milk consumption typically plummets once chocolate milk is no longer an option.

“Some people are going off the deep end,” Hayes said, again to much applause. “I personally do not want to live in a world without chocolate. Along with that little extra sugar in chocolate milk comes a lot of nutrients. And now that we have chocolate milk formulations that are so low-fat, we should be considering them.”

Hayes also dished up some disparagement for those who insist schools ought not be in the food service business at all, and that sack lunches from home are a better alternative. In fact, she said, studies show that school lunches contain three times more dairy, twice as much fruit and seven times the vegetables as the typical sack lunch from home.

“School meals are the one place that must meet strict guidelines for quality and nutritional value in the food served,” she said. “We are not the problem. We are in the forefront of the solution.”

Hayes isn’t the only one feeling unfairly put upon these days. Jody Houston, Director of Food Services for the Corpus Christie, Texas, school district and another speaker at the conference, urged school food service employees to be savvy marketers. She was promoting “Tray Talk,” a new public relations campaign put together by the School Nutrition Association to emphasize the benefits of school meals and showcase success stories from school districts nationwide.

“What’s the story we want to tell?” Houston asked. “We need to show that school meals are healthy meals.”

A recent School Nutrition Association survey of its members found widespread changes in the offing in school lunchrooms. Among the findings:

  • More than nine out of 10 school districts are increasing their offerings of whole grain products and fresh produce.
  • Nearly 70 percent of districts are reducing or eliminating sodium in foods.
  • About two-thirds of districts are reducing or limiting added sugar.
  • More than half of districts are increasing vegetarian options.
  • More than two-thirds of districts with vending services are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in the vending machines.

Houston sees marketing devices such as Tray Talk as a needed counterbalance to websites such as “Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project,” in which an anonymous Midwestern adult female blogger chronicles her experiences eating school lunches every day for a year, along with some distinctly unappetizing photos.

“It’s quite negative,” Houston said.

Anecdotally, more school districts also appear to be launching farm-to-school programs to provide more locally-grown foods in school lunchrooms.

Jill Kidd, director of food services for the Pueblo city school district, said she most appreciated the chance simply to network with other food service directors and kitchen managers.

“It’s good just to sit with other people for awhile and hear about what they’re doing,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected].

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.