Recently, we caught up with Debbie Needham, Texas Association of School Nutrition President and Director of Child Nutrition at New Caney Independent School District. New Caney is a small town located on the northern outskirts of Houston, TX, and has been experiencing huge growth in recent years.

Some stats about the New Caney ISD Child Nutrition Program:

  • 16 serving sites + 7 concession sites
  • 12,000+ students in district
  • added 3,000+ students in the past 5 years
  • average of 60% free and reduced district-wide

Stephen, Jaren, and I sat down with Debbie to pick her brain about all things school nutrition. Considering taking one or more of your schools off the NSLP? Debbie can talk to that. Active in your state’s nutrition association? Debbie is your woman. Experiencing astronomical growth in your district and struggling to keep up? Debbie’s been through that too! She’s a wealth of knowledge, and it was a pleasure to chat with her.

We’ve pulled out some of the best nuggets from our conversation with her and highlighted them in the post below. We hope that you enjoy our conversation! Also, keep in mind that if multi-tasking is your jam, you can listen to our interview on Episodes #2 and #3 of PEP Talks – our bi-weekly podcast.

Q: Can you talk about taking your high schools off the NSLP and your experience with that?

A: Taking the high schools off the program was quite a challenge. In our area, we are quite limited with restaurants – so to offer a variety – we are very limited under the national nutrition guidelines, especially for high school students. I wanted to open the doors and let them explore some additional items.

We took both high schools off

[the NSLP] as a pilot program, all the while monitoring the monthly incomes and other things. Students were eating! It was unbelievable to see the variety of items that we could put out there and what the students were taking. The most popular items were wraps, salads, and soups which amazed me. We put a fryer in, but they were not lined up for the fryer. They were actually buying the sub-sandwiches, things that they would normally go to a Subway and get. So we created those lines, and those were the lines that actually grew.

But under the child nutrition guidelines, we’re limited with sodium in things like dressings, and what do kids like? Ranch dressing. We can’t offer ranch dressing under the guidelines, so we’ve had to make it with yogurt and other things. That changes the entire flavor profile. In the high schools, what I’ve seen is kids still want a healthy meal. They’re not looking for all fried foods, because that’s not what we’re truly promoting [by going off the NSLP]. I have not added candy nor sodas back into the high schools at all. I limit all that. We did put in coffee bars, but we are not putting in candy. We do make some homemade items, like a fresh cookie. We’re baking a lot from scratch. That has changed, so that has really enticed a lot of kids. A lot of moms no longer cook, with the trend of grab-and-go type things, so we’re trying to bring that environment back. Actually our theme this year is “Get Scratching!” All of our campuses are doing scratch cooking of some sort, and our managers seem to be enjoying it because they get to try different recipes.

At our high schools, the greatest impact was our sandwich and soup line. Salads are popular in all of our serving lines; we do chef salads every day. We do salads in cups – shake-and-go cups. Our athletes who are out the door for a workout will grab a salad to go for later that day. It’s really been an awesome program for us!

Q: But you recently decided to put one of these high schools back on the Program. Why?

A: Unfortunately, one of our schools was extremely high free and reduced, and funding plays a big role with child nutrition being self-funded. We had to look at not only the funding part, but the age of the high schools and the serving lines. One of our high schools is four years old, and so the design is a little bit more up to date and modern. The other high school is 31 years old. Big difference. At that school, you’re using your old dish room as the pizza room, where in the new high school, it has a brick oven which we cook pizza in. The high school that was 31 years old, we just noticed that the participation was not there; the funding was not there. So we went back on the Program at that school, but we changed the mindset. Kids now build their own sub-sandwiches and build their own salads. The students seem to be happy with it. They didn’t seem to notice a big difference in going back on the Program. It’s been very successful.

I like to try new things. I’m not scared to step out of the box, because I think it makes it fun and entertaining for the kids as well.

Q: You mentioned that the kids seemed to gravitate more towards the healthier options, even while off the Program? Why do you think that is?

A: I think what the kids see in the build-your-own items is that they can use their own creativity. They get to choose that particular food component. If you’re just getting a standard chicken strip dinner and fries, that is what you’re getting. In a wrap or a build-your-own sub sandwich, you get to choose what you want in there. It satisfies their creativity and their taste profile. I think the most popular things involve giving the kids options to build their own.

Even our staff takes a little bit more pride in what they make when they make it from scratch. It’s not heating up pre-made food; you actually have to think about the process. When a student comes through that salad bar line and the lady working that line sees the response from students, she has a little bit more enthusiasm and can promote it more.

That’s what I tell my employees. You’ve got to be warm and welcoming to the students. If you take more pride in your work, the students are going to be more apt to respond to that. When you make things from scratch, it also helps from our attendance factor for staff members. What I’ve seen is that when we scratch cook and you give them a responsibility over a certain dish, they are more apt to come to work. They have more accountability and an important purpose in being there. Being responsible for coming in and panning up frozen biscuits, its easy to say, “oh anyone can do that job,” and not come in. I think it’s been a win-win on both sides – the kids get fresh products and I get a staff member who is dedicated and wants to promote.