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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Spartanburg County School District Six: a culture of EXCELLENCE!

Under the leadership of Spartanburg County School District Six (SCSD6) Superintendent Dr. Darryl Owings, a culture of excellence infiltrates the district's entire spectrum of operations. With the strong support of the nine-member School Board, Darryl ensures the SCSD6 adheres to their mission to always put the children first.

The SCSD6 administrative offices as well as the main district campus are located in Roebuck, SC on a sprawling 292-acre tract of land. Intertwined within the SCSD6 facilities are natural wetlands, wooded areas, and walking trails available for students and the community.

Within the Roebuck vicinity, a profound community spirit permeates the local area. Steeped in pre-Revolutionary War heritage, Roebuck is the home to the Walnut Grove Plantation, Charles and Mary Moore's residence built in 1765 on land granted to them in 1763 by King George III. The Walnut Grove Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and open to the public as a living history farm.

Over 2016 and 2017, the South Carolina (SC) Conservation Bank purchased a total of 120 acres of family-owned land from Charles and Mary Moore's descendants. In 2016, Upstate Forever protected the land with a conservation easement to set aside the land for educational and agricultural purpose. The Spartanburg County Foundation owns the protected land while Upstate Forever administers the property. In a long-term agreement, SCSD6 leases 16 acres to use as an organic farm to grow produce for the district schools.

Per the Upstate Forever site, partial funding from the South Carolina (SC) Conservation Bank offsets some of the costs involved in placing the easement, making the land donation, and endowing the property’s perpetual care. The entire tract of land is known as the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor.

Within the community spirit, resident Roger Milliken founded the Noble Tree Foundation in 1999 with the following mission: "To enhance the well-being of the citizens of Spartanburg County through the promotion of landscaping and excellence in horticulture." By definition, noble trees are planted to live for multiple generations while enhancing the landscape, providing shade, and grow into fixtures within the surrounding landscape. Some of the Milliken noble trees are visible from the SCSD6 campus.

Elemental Impact Visits Spartanburg
In October 2018 Elemental Impact (Ei) along with Ei Strategic Ally Feed & Seed hosted the Ei Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health and World Hunger. During the final exploration session at the Clemson organic-student farm, Feed & Seed Chair Mary Hipp shared on the amazing healthy-food school programs at SCSD6 as well as down the road 20+ miles at Greenville County Schools.

The tour group, left to right:
Greg, Mary and Darryl
Inspired, Ei Founder Holly Elmore traveled to Greenville | Spartanburg in May 2019 to meet the masterminds behind the healthy-food school programs and tour their respective operations. Mary was generous with her time, connections, and spirit as she hosted Holly for two-consecutive days of meetings and tours.

On May 14 Darryl, along with SCSD6 Deputy Superintendent Dr. Greg Cantrell, hosted Mary and Holly for an introductory meeting in the district's offices. Afterwards, Darryl and Greg took Mary and Holly on tours of the campus greenhouse followed by the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor where healthy, organic food is grown for the school cafeterias. The locally grown, healthy-food commitment at SCSD6 was evident and impressive.

SCSD6 - at a glance
One of seven Spartanburg County districts, SCSD6 enrolls approximately 11,500 students, and the district employs nearly 900 certified staff members. The school system consists of one child development center, nine elementary schools, three middle schools, one ninth-grade school campus and one high school. The student teacher ratio is sixteen to one.

From the Census Reporter, SCSD6 is 150.6 square miles with a population just under 68,000 individuals. The median age is 37.2 years old and 26% of the population under 18 years of age live in poverty conditions.

Though the overall student graduation rate is 88.6%, for students who attended SCSD6 in grades 9-12 the graduation rate is 96.8 %. Committed to preparing students for successful lives, the R.D. Anderson Applied Technology Center (RDA) was a pioneer in the development of vocational centers in SC and a Palmetto Gold Winner for 11 years.

According to the RDA ATC Fast Fact Sheet, 2,875 students participated in RDA courses in the 2017-2018 school year. RDA offers certifications | licenses in a variety of fields including State Cosmetology License, Certified Nursing Assistant, First Aid / CPR / AED, Servsafe, and more. Local industry donated $40,000 for student scholarships in the 2017 - 2018 school year.

At Dorman High School, more than 90% of graduates attend a 2 or 4-year college, university, or enter the military and $19 million in scholarships was earned last school year. In the 2017 - 2018 school year, over 900 students completed dual-enrollment courses for college credit at no cost to them; over 800 completed AP exams and earned college credit.

Beyond student academics, within the SCSD6 culture of excellence is a commitment to student health and wellness.

Commitment to Health & Wellness
When students come first, a commitment to health and wellness naturally follows. As a significant step in serving students healthy, freshly prepared food, SCSD6 ended their third-party foodservice-operator contract and established internal culinary operations.

According the July 2015 article, Fresh-cooked meals catch on in District 6 schools, newly hired kitchen staff underwent extensive culinary training. Most of the staff were employees of prior the foodservice contracter and were familiar with the kitchens. Yet, their culinary tasks were mainly limited to heating and serving food that required minimal basic-kitchen skills.

Cragmoor Farm view from entrance
Culinary Partners (CP) provided the 36-hour course that educated the staff on basic-kitchen skills, nutrition, food safety, pallet development, and marketing skills to entice students to try the fresh-food options. During her tenure as Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services (GCS FANS) Director, CP Executive Director Eileen Staples, spearheaded the Greenville schools healthy-food school program launch in 2010 with impressive results.

The RiA Magazine article, #schoolfoodROCKS: indeed, school food does rock in Greenville County, SC!, gives the history and evolution of the amazing school-foodservice program embarked upon by Eileen and further excelled under the current GCS FANS Director Joe Urban. A section in the Holly Elmore Images FB album, Greenville, SC, gives a pictorial recap of Ei's GSC FANS cafeteria tour and lunch.

In January 2014, SCSD6 hired Travis Fisher as the Director of Food Services to oversee the culinary operations in the fourteen cafeterias as well as the catering operations. A seasoned culinary professional, Travis started his career in the restaurant industry. More recently, Travis worked eight years at Aramark where he served as Assistant Director of Child Nutrition before his promotion to Executive Director of Foodservice at a SC-school district. Travis was an investment within the SCSD6 commitment to excellence.

SCSD6 greenhouse on the backside
of the Dorman Freshman Campus
SCSD6 SUCCESS: as shared in a WYFF July 2015 news report, SCSD6 served 38,000 more breakfasts, 106,000 more lunches, and 9,000 more dinners in the first year of serving healthy, from-scratch food to their students.

A natural extension of a healthy-food program is a farm-to-school focus supporting local agriculture. In 2016, SCSD6 evolved the farm-to-school focus to a campus-to-cafeteria endeavor with the construction of a greenhouse on the backside of the Dorman Freshman Campus. Buttercrunch lettuce, other lettuces, and herbs are grown in a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) hydroponic growing system.

Per the RiA Magazine article, Success is not static: evolution is required to create and sustain regeneration, on Kennesaw State University's Hickory Grove Farm, a regenerative farm built on a prior Georgia Department of Transportation cement-mixing site:
Mary touring the greenhouse
NFT hydroponic system
In addition to not requiring soil for healthy crops, hydroponic-agriculture systems save tremendous water. According to a University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science 2011 article: 
A hydroponic lettuce system could use only 10 percent of the water needed compared to field-grown lettuce. Arizona uses about 70 percent of its water for agriculture. Theoretically, about 90 percent of all that water could be saved if every farm converted to hydroponics.
According to Greg, the greenhouse NFT system provides approximately 50% of the district cafeterias' lettuce consumption.

The Farm 2 School website page states there are currently six operating elementary-school gardens within the district, one middle-school garden, and more gardens are in the planning stages. In addition to providing nutritious food, the campus gardens and agricultural endeavors serve as a student-educational platform with formal and informal programs in place.

SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor 
Farm view from the packing house
In 2016, SCSD6 took possession of the 16-acre plot of land destined for the district's organic-certified farm within their Farm 2 School program. For the first year, farm staff tested the land to determine what could be grown crop-wise and officially opened as an operating farm in 2017. The SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor is the foundation for creating a hyper-local food system for SCSD6.

From inception, the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor was U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Good Agricultural Practices certified. With the land in possession for three consecutive years, SCSD6 is in the midst of obtaining USDA Organic certification. In accordance with the USDA National Organic Program standards, organic crops must be grown on land that is free from prohibited pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers for three years preceding growth.

With the farm research complete, SCSD6 invested in the farm staff and equipment necessary to fully embark on the Farm 2 School initiative. In 2018, SCSD6 invested in an impressive packing house including a wash line for root crops, an ice machine for packing broccoli & other vegetables, and a dual walk-in cooler system.

Dual walk-in coolers in the
packing house
The coolers are maintained at different temperatures to maximize optimal shelf life and produce quality. In addition, it is important to store certain fruits and vegetables separately. For example, onions and potatoes excrete incompatible gasses that lead to faster spoilage.

Only root vegetables are cleaned in the wash line as rinsing fruits and vegetables may lead to earlier spoilage. Thus, field crops such a zucchini, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, lettuces, and herbs are field-packed and washed in the cafeterias prior to kitchen prep. Lettuces and herbs from the greenhouse are transported to packing house where they are aggregated with the farm crops for delivery to the district cafeterias via a refrigerated truck.

Installed in March 2019, the farm high tunnel is used to germinate seedlings for crop planting. As seedlings were previously germinated in the greenhouse, NFT lettuce and herb production may be increased due to freed greenhouse space. The high tunnel may serve as a totally or partially enclosed facility; when totally enclosed the seedlings are protected from insect pests.

A tomato greenhouse is under construction with an August completion date.

SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor bee hives
In April 2017, honey bees arrived at the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor thanks to Dorman High School Resource Officer, Sean Roberts. As a beekeeper, Sean delivered approximately 20,000 bees to the farm for aiding in crop pollination as well as the delicious honey byproduct. The Bees Arrive at SC Spartanburg County School District Six! video on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group website is excellent coverage of the bees' arrival.

Aligning with a national trend, SCSD6 purchased a food truck in 2018 to service special events and camps within the district. Via the USDA-sponsored Summer Meals Program, SCSD6 distributes free lunches to children under 18 years old, regardless of whether they live in the district or not.

In the final development stages, the goal is for the Farm at Cragmoor to attain self-sustaining financial status by 2021. Revenue is derived from the district cafeterias who pay market rate for the farm produce and the summer Farmers Market hosted at the farm. As peak produce season is during the district's summer break, the Farmers Market allows the farm to maximize the crop production with a financially rewarding outcome. The market is open to the community.

Ethan & Patricia
Farm staff includes three full-time field workers, two full-time seasonal workers, and one part-time staff member. In addition to field responsibilities, Ethan Jarrett works in the packing house as well as administers crop planning, seed sourcing, and product distribution.

From a management perspective, Philip Ward joined the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor team almost from inception. Philip is responsible for soil health, land preparation, and equipment maintenance. Recently, Lisa Stansell left her GCS agriculture-teacher position to join SCSD6 as the Farm 2 School Director. In her new role, Lisa oversees the entire Farm 2 School program including farm and greenhouse educational platform development.

Another recent farm-management investment was hiring Patricia Tripp in April as the SCSD6 Director of Food Safety and Sustainability.

Food Safety First
Food quality and food safety are integrated cohesively within best agricultural practices.

As a highly respected food-safety and best agricultural-practices industry expert, Patricia brings nine years of farm food-safety experience to her new responsibilities at SCSD6. Patricia is the steward for creating and sustaining a food-safety culture at the farm and throughout the district.

Vegetable wash line in the
packing house
Beyond establishing formal agricultural food-safety practices, Patricia is charged with obtaining the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor's organic certification. Additionally, Patricia oversees the transformation of the recently closed nearby Old Fairforest Middle School cafeteria kitchen into a food-processing center.

Scheduled to open in August, the processing center will initially use the farm's roma tomatoes to make tomato sauce as well as freezing freshly harvested produce. The intention is to expand to ten value-added products this fiscal year. Patricia will establish the food-safety standards and policies for the processing center.

With the SCSD6 healthy-food commitment staged to excel into the next implementation stage, it is an incredibly busy time at the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor and the district as a whole.

Awards, Honors and Grants. 
At the 2018 ForeverGreen Awards Luncheon, the Spartanburg School District 6: Farm 2 School Initiative was honored with the Tommy Wyche Land Conservation Champion Award. The award video emphasized how the Farm 2 School Initiative success is the result of a strong collaboration between the Moore Family descendants, mainly Tom Moore Craig, Upstate Forever, SC Conservation Bank, and the Spartanburg County Foundation.

Tomato seedlings ready for
planting in the field
In the 2019 SC Best School District Rankings, SCSD6 is ranked #3 with an overall "A" ranking, the same as the #1 and #2 districts. In specific categories, SCSD6 received an A+ in Clubs | Activities and Diversity.

Grant funding is often key to implementing aggressive programs such as the SCSD6 Farm 2 School Initiative. In a collaborative spirit, SCSD6 received numerous impressive national, state and local grants to augment and support the Farm 2 School Initiative, whether directly for the farm, creating school gardens or related to agriculture and nutrition education. As stated on the Farm 2 School website page:
The district was awarded the SC Department of Agriculture Grant to support school gardens, to source food locally, and to incorporate agriculture and nutrition education into school curriculums. In addition, the district received a USDA Farm to School Grant and the Healthy School Initiative Grant, a partnership with the Mary Black Foundation. To further encourage agriculture and nutrition education, the district was awarded an AmeriCorps Grant to create a new program, FarmCorps.
The Ei FB album, Spartanburg County School District Six, is a pictorial recap of the SCSD6 Farm at Cragmoor tour.

To achieve a culture of excellence, consistent strong leadership must continually develop and demand the highest standards, attract individuals with similar moral values and work ethics, invest in the staff, equipment and facilities necessary for desired achievements, and showcase success as the culmination of collaborative effort within the organization and the community as a whole.

With Dr. Darryl Owings at the helm, the Spartanburg County School District Six encases the ingredients for a culture of excellence throughout the district. The School 2 Farm Initiative moving from the development to the operational phase exemplifies the district's culture of EXCELLENCE.

Monday, July 1, 2019

#schoolfoodROCKS: indeed, school food does rock in Greenville County, SC!

Greenville County Schools (GCS) Food and Nutrition Services (FANS) Director Joe Urban created the #schoolfoodROCKS social-media branding for the incredible school-foodservice operation under his direction. Passionate about establishing healthy-food-school programs as the standard across the nation and beyond, Joe uses GCS FANS's success to inspire other school systems to evolve their food programs.

A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School
The evolution of the GCS FANS-food program inaugurated in 2010 with the support of then Superintendent Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher. Soon-to-open A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School was designated as the pilot for the healthy-food program. Ron Jones was hired as a GCS FANS Culinary Specialist to develop and oversee the pilot.

Once the FANS healthy-food program grew into standard-operating practices, Ron left GCS FANS for his current position, Director of the Office of Health and Nutrition at the South Carolina State Department of Education. In the meantime, Joe was promoted to GCS FANS Director.

Elemental Impact Visits Greenville
In October 2018 Elemental Impact (Ei) along with Ei Strategic Ally Feed & Seed hosted the Ei Exploration of Fungi, Soil Health and World Hunger. During the final exploration session at the Clemson organic-student farm, Feed & Seed Chair Mary Hipp shared on the amazing healthy-food school programs at Greenville County Schools as well as up the road 20+ miles at Spartanburg County Schools, District Six.

Inspired, Ei Founder Holly Elmore traveled to Greenville in May 2019 to meet the masterminds behind the healthy-food school programs and tour their respective operations. Mary was generous with her time, connections and spirit as she hosted Holly for two consecutive days of meetings and tours.

Lunch served during FANS visit
On May 15 Joe, along with FANS Coordinator of Operations Paula Wambeke and Culinary Specialist Brian Hickey, hosted Mary and Holly for an introductory meeting on GSC FANS' impressive healthy-meals program. Following the program history and current scenario education, the group toured the Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School cafeteria and enjoyed an amazing lunch.

The lunch was absolutely delicious and healthy! Joe made it clear the lunch served was standard fare and the staff was unaware of the cafeteria visit.

Holly was thrilled the homemade mac 'n cheese was on the menu as well as the Philly-cheesesteak sandwich made with Certified Angus Beef sliced steak. The mac 'n cheese as well as the corn & potato chowder were made with local milk that arrives with cream on the top. Plump farm-fresh strawberries and blueberries were the two fruit options and were divinely delicious. Holly's only lunch disappointment was her request for a half-sandwich instead of the full-serving.

GCS FANS - at a glance
Located in the South Carolina Upstate, GCS is the largest school system in the state with 76,000+ students and the 44th largest in the nation. The 750 FANS-foodservice professionals serve approximately 80,000 meals daily while school is in session for a total of 14 million meals annually. GCS includes 100 school facilities and special centers while FANS operates 93 commercial kitchens.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Greenville comprises a total area of 795-square miles, consisting of 785-square miles of land and nearly 10-square miles of water. With the vast topography, the GCS-student population is diverse, from an economic status as well as their ethnic-heritage perspective.

When classes are in session, each school serves breakfast and lunch daily and several augment with afternoon snacks. Though the national average is about 50%, approximately 75% of GCS students eat FANS meals during the school year. Breakfast is free to every child, no matter their subsidy status. Of the 30% of the students who choose breakfast, the vast majority are on the subsidized plan.

During the summer, FANS continues to offer meals in less affluent neighborhoods via eight stops by the food truck (bagged lunches), 25 community sites (bagged lunches), and 25 schools (hot meals). FANS serves up to 5,000 meals Monday through Friday in the summer yet the number may get as low as 2,000 meals.

An Evolution to Healthy Food
With success at the 2010 A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School pilot, by 2011 ten additional elementary schools were initiated into the healthy-food-school program. The strategy was to start with the younger students in elementary schools followed by a rollout in the middle and high schools. Soon, the first class that consumed healthy food through their entire GCS tenure graduates.

Early program challenges included parental resistance, limited purchasing options via the state-purchasing group, staff unskilled in basic-kitchen protocol, and developing healthy menus that garnered student approval.

Each lunch shift fills the cafeteria
 with students eager to eat lunch.
Surprisingly, in the beginning FANS experienced parental push-back related to a "do not tell our kids what to eat" attitude. In addition, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Sec. 204 of Public Law 111-296) and parents were resentful of the government essentially saying "what you have been doing food wise is wrong."

Using foresight, FANS developed a lunch program that far exceeded the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) new regulations. According to the NSLP Fact Sheet:
The NSLP is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or no-cost lunches to children each school day. The program was established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946. 
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the Program at the Federal level. At the State level, the NSLP is administered by State agencies, which operate the Program through agreements with school-food authorities.
By 2016, 30.4 million students participated in the NSLP. School-lunch programs must strictly adhere to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to receive reimbursement for the free and low-cost lunches served pursuant to the Act.

In 2012, FANS left the SC Purchasing Alliance, evolved their purchasing decisions, and developed their own bid specifications. Using their significant power-of-consumer demand, FANS worked in partnership with a broad-line distributor to develop a local-products and made-from-scratch purchasing platform. Beyond the purchasing flexibility afforded by contracting with them, FANS relies on a broad-line distributor to ensure local farmers and other applicable purveyors are USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified, as required by the NSLP. Joe emphasizes the importance of working in partnership with vendors.

Food safety first in FANS kitchens:
employee temperature tests chicken
tenders prior to service
An added regional benefit of FANS' contract is a local broad-line distributor now carries a wide variety of local products that are also available to smaller foodservice customers. Closeby Furman University demands their contracted foodservice operator Bon Appetit adhere to similar local and organic-purchasing regimine. Thanks to FANS, Bon Appetit has access to such products from a local broad-line distributor.

Before embarking on the healthy-food-school program, FANS staff served prepared food that required minimal to no cooking skills. Fresh food was reasonably non-existent. Thus, the staff required significant culinary-skills training to prep, cook, and serve menu items made in-house.

Over years, the entire FANS 750-person staff participated in Culinary Creations where they learned valuable skills in nutrition, safety, cost control, production line and setup.

According to a May 2013 Foodservice Director profile, Eileen Staples: Staying Ahead, Eileen Staples didn't wait for new meal regs to kick in, she made adjustments on her own, then FANS Director Eileen Staples renovated GCS foodservice in anticipation of the forthcoming USDA regulations as follows:
  • Developing Culinary Creations, a dining program that improves the quality and healthfulness of meals. A chef was hired to lead the program, in which more items are cooked from scratch.
  • Focusing on training, particularly food safety, to ensure the department’s goals are consistent throughout this large district.
  • Renovating or rebuilding 60 school cafeterias, which led to increased participation.
  • Taking over school stores to sell students food items and school supplies.
Garnering student approval of the healthy food-school program was a process that continues today. For a year, FANS management simply witnessed student-eating habits and watched the lines. Management listened to the students with open ears without getting offended. Starting with the younger children was strategic as the older students' expectations were influenced by years of eating unhealthy school food.

Self-serve salad bar at a
middle school
Joe pays particular attention to trends, especially student preferences at food courts. Students prefer diversity and like to compile meals themselves from a variety of options. Thus, the high school offers mac 'n cheese, hamburger, taco and other build-your-own bars. All school cafeterias menus include salad bars.

According to Joe, kids will eat anything served for free from a food truck. Thus, FANS often tests new menu items from their food truck for student feedback, especially for ethnic recipes.

FANS menus are sensitive to allergies and cultural | personal dietary restrictions. Each day students may create vegetarian or vegan meals from the standard-menu offerings.

The Many Facets of Success
By 2014, the healthy-food-school-program foundation was established and ready to catapult to next dimensions. With perfect timing, Joe was promoted to FANS Director and took the helm of the entire foodservice operation. Using his in-depth culinary background, Joe implemented his vision of serving students high-quality, nutritious food on a daily basis.

Canned fruit was banned from FANS kitchens and replaced with seasonal, fresh fruit, locally grown when practical. Soups offered daily are made from scratch in the kitchens. 

Philly-cheesesteak sandwiches
made with Certified Angus Beef
sliced steak.
FANS' beef-menu items are made from 100% Certified Angus Beef, whether the ground-beef 4-ounces hamburger patties or the Philly-cheesesteak sandwiches made with sliced steak. Reportedly, GCS FANS is the only school system in the nation serving 100% Certified Angus Beef.

Highly processed chicken was replaced with minimally processed whole-muscle items. Delicious chicken tenders are one of the standard daily menu options; in the middle and high-school menus, chicken tenders are purchased as a la carte items.

Premium seafood - Alaskan pollock or salmon, mahi-mahi, catfish, trout - is a priority in menu development. Seafood is served a minimum of once per week for all grade levels.

“Super-premium” items like St. Louis-style ribs, smoked beef brisket, salmon, chicken wings and chicken and waffle sandwiches were added to the rotating-school menu.

In late 2016, FANS purchased a used bread truck for $11,000 with only 36,000 miles. With another approximately $39,000 spent in renovations, FANS was the proud owner of a cool food truck for a $50,000 investment. The food truck's purpose was to increase the number of meals served in the summer program, to provide value-added services to schools for special events, and for taste-testing potential new menu items. The food truck was completely funded from the FANS-operating budget.

As previously mentioned, there is considerable diversity in the county's school-district-economic status, ranging from affluent to impoverished or at least economically challenged. FANS has a strict policy that every school is served an identical menu, with absolutely no favoritism towards the more affluent schools.

Fresh seasonal fruit is
self-service on the food line.
Beyond serving students healthy food, FANS encourages students interested in the culinary arts. Beginning in 2015, FANS participated in a kids-cooking contest at Euphoria, an acclaimed food, music and arts festival hosted in Greenville. The contest pairs the student with a celebrity chef in town for the festival; the chef serves as the student's sous chef in the timed-recipe challenge. One of the contest awards is the winner's recipe is added to the FANS menu.

Often FANS develops culinary programs that complement academic curriculum. Several cafeterias participate in Low CoConservation lessons via vertical-hydroponics systems. Herbs and microgreens grown in the vertical-tower gardens are served on the salad bars and as garnish. Another example was an educational trout program where the students nurtured trout from eggs to alevins (baby trout) to fish ready for release. Thus, the students follow trout from eggs to the plate with trout on the lunch menu.

When a third-grade class studied traditional Carolina cooking, Joe pulled on his extensive celebrity-chef connections to craft a low-country boil as well as slow-smoking a whole hog overnight. Anthony DiBernardo (Swig & Swine BBQ) and Johnny Carino (Carino’s Italian) joined Joe for the impressive, tasty educational event. Anthony slow-smoked the hog along with 23 pork shoulders for pulled-pork sandwiches while Johnny used locally sourced shrimp from Buford, SC for the low-country boil.

According to Joe, “We parked a rig just outside the cafeteria where the kids could see it through the glass when they arrived in the morning.” Students as well as their parents enjoyed a tasty local lunch that augmented class curriculum.

Awards & Accolades
GCS FANS is the recipient of numerous national awards and international recognition over a range of categories. In 2015 and 2016, GCS FANS earned USDA Best Practices Awards in Fiscal Management. The prestigious award recognizes school districts that utilize creative and accountable practices for managing finances in tough economic times including practices that reduce costs and/or increase efficiency in school-nutrition programs and efforts to better serve program participants more efficiently with available resources.

Joe knows success requires teamwork.
FANS Management team with Feed & Seed
Mary Hipp. Pictured left to right:
Paula Wambeke, Joe, Mary & Brian Hickey
When the Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP) named him an Ambassador in May 2017, Joe received global recognition for revolutionizing school-food programs. According to the SNP site, Ambassadors are comprised of high-profile individuals that have a passion for health & wellness, seafood nutrition, and addressing America’s public-health crisis. As stated in the Joe Urban Is Inspiring Kids to Eat Healthier by Redefining What School Food Can Be press release, the SLP believes Joe is a School-Lunch Hero.

Per fellow Ambassador Johnny Carino, "Joe is a pioneer. He pushes his staff daily to get better, to undergo training, to create new dishes in his test kitchen, and to inspire other schools to take school food to a new level."

In January 2018 Food Management announced: K-12 Innovator of the Year: Greenville County Schools with an in-depth article on GCS FANS. The article highlights Joe's ingenious path to creating the award-winning school-food program. Beyond serving healthy food to the students, FANS empowers employees and makes innovative contributions to school-course curriculum.

Fiscally Fit
Though there is unwavering GCS support of the healthy-food-school program, FANS must maintain fiscal responsibility and cover 100% of its costs; there are no subsidies or draws from the county general-fund available. Thus, Joe uses his extensive restaurant experience and runs FANS like a chain-restaurant business versus a government-school system.

Each kitchen manager is responsible for managing costs at their school cafeteria. Food and dry-good ordering is done at the kitchen level using a standardized purchasing system. Employees, whether management or hourly, are empowered with ample training and take ownership of serving healthy food with smiles to students.

FANS's back-of-house kitchens are
neat, spotless and organized, all indicators
of an exceptionally well-run kitchen. 
The foodservice industry is notorious for costly high-labor turnover. Restaurants rarely offer health-insurance benefits to hourly employees and only sometimes to management. FANS employees are treated respectfully, trained on a continuous basis to develop strong culinary skills, and receive full county-health-insurance benefits. Additionally, work is complete in the early afternoon. Thus, employees are free to work another job or simply spend time with their children in the afternoon.

Thus, FANS experiences low-employee turnover.

Working in partnership with vendors is key to maintaining consistently low-cost margins and taking advantage of spur-of-the-moment opportunities due to market surplus. As previously stated, FANS serves 14-million meals annually and has considerable purchasing power to negotiate contracts with low-cost margins.

Yet, astute business acumen is necessary to operate a 750-employee business in a cost-effective manner. Joe Urban expertly intertwines his profound passion with business-savvy finesse and runs an award-winning healthy-food school program.

A section in the Holly Elmore Images FB album, Greenville, SC, gives a pictorial recap of the GSC FANS' cafeteria tour and lunch.

Indeed, #schoolfoodROCKS at Greenville County Schools Nutrition and Food Services! Now it is time replicate the successful template across South Carolina, the Southeast, and the nation.