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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.

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