Branding School Lunch Menus to Make Choosing Veggies Fun

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Penny Parham is helping students in Miami-Dade County (65% Latino) make healthier food choices more easily thanks to highlighted, veggie-promoting “Lean & Green” menus.

By providing more vegetarian options, officials with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools hope to increase students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables and make healthy food the easy choice.

How did they make it happen?

Lean & Green

Penny Parham, the administrative director at Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, realized the school district’s initiative of “Meatless Mondays” were popular for students. However, these vegetarian meal options were only available to students on Mondays.

The Miami-Dade school district is the fourth largest in the nation, and having healthy eating options on an everyday basis is vital to the health of the over 67% of the Latino students within the district. The district serves 90,000 breakfasts a day, 200,000 lunches, and 40,000 after school meals.

The district sets up school menus so that healthy eating choices are available, but many of these options were not being branded or noticed by students.

“Students are amazing,” Parham said. “They really do want to eat fresh and healthy, and they are not looking for overly complicated things.”

The district’s wellness department already had great connections with organizations such as, Farm-to-School, Authentically EATalian, Urban School Food Alliance, and many more to create more healthy food options. The district also incorporated fresh produce from school gardens that were granted seven years ago by The Education Fund.

Screen shot of Miami-Dade Public Schools Online Meal Application. Source: Miami-Dade Public school site
Screen shot of Miami-Dade Public Schools Online Meal Application. Source: Miami-Dade Public school website

Parham explained that they worked with students to discover healthy foods through taste tests, and they always provided students their favorite healthy options daily.

Something more still needed to be done to give kids a clear way to see the many healthy options.

Parham told Karla Dumas, a registered dietitian and food policy expert who works for the Humane Society of the United States, about the district’s implementation of the Meatless Monday campaigns over the years, but now she wanted to do more to promote vegetable consumption in their district.

Dumas told Parham about Lean & Green.

The programming for the Lean & Green branding idea includes providing less waste, with compostable plates along with a focus on environmental sustainability through more consumption of vegetables.

Dumas explained how the Humane Society uses Lean & Green branding to promote healthy plant-based foods into menus at schools by marketing it within the schools and how this might help promote the already healthy efforts the district was working toward.

After learning about Lean & Green, Parham realized that the department was already doing many of the things that would make their school “lean” and “green,” such as vegetable-based meal options, dairy-free options, and farm-to-school efforts.

But they needed a more effective way to inform students just how many options they had for more vegetable consumption for every day of the week.

“We wanted a more broad way of making sure that every day there was a meatless choice, and that that meatless choice was noticeable,” Parham said.

How Can Lean & Green Work?

The Lean & Green initiative could help the district promote its vegetarian options beyond just Meatless Mondays, Parham and Dumas agreed.

“I saw the Lean & Green option as a great way to promote the healthier plant-based meatless options everyday of the week, not only on Monday,” said Dumas.

Parham gathered her staff and set up an appointment with Dumas to discuss and review the idea of having Lean & Green put into the all the schools in the district.

Screenshot of online Lean & Green Menu, vegetable options highlighted in green. Source: Miami-Dade Public Schools website
Screenshot of online Lean & Green Menu, vegetable options highlighted in green. Source: Miami-Dade Public Schools website

Dumas designed a customized proposal of Lean & Green to fit the school’s needs and presented it to Parham and her staff. Recipes, menus, and marketing ideas were all presented to make sure these programs would work and would be sustainable.

“We loved the terminology Lean & Green,” Parham said.

Some parents told Parham that kids don’t always eat fresh vegetables.

However, Parham felt there were many innovative ways to get students to eat the vegetables on their lunch trays, such as creating flavorful options like roasted vegetables, stir-fry options, unique side dishes and more.

Customizing the Menus

During summer 2015, Dumas worked with the district to customize the marketing materials that would meet the district’s needs. She then provided Lean & Green posters for the schools from the Humane Society.

With no grants or marketing budget, the district’s Department of Food and Nutrition staff worked on updating the school’s nutrition website and worked with the company Nutrislice to link updated Lean & Green menus online and have them accessible in a variety of digital formats.

The holistic approach for Lean & Green branding helps kids see what is available for school lunches. Highlighted in green on the in-school and online menus, the vegetable options could be easily marked for students and parents to see and choose.

“It’s about eating foods that are fresh, healthy and good for you,” Parham said. “Brown rice and beans are good for you and are healthy choices that lend themselves to a lot of different menu combinations.”

Starting in the fall of the 2015 school year, the Miami-Dade school districts branded and marketed Lean & Green throughout the entire district.

Fresh produce would continue to fuel healthy meal options through the district’s work with local farms. School gardens also would continue to teach students to grow fresh produce, such as cilantro and herbs, and incorporate them into different meal options.

Promoting the Menus

Miami-Dade Lean & Green posters. Source: The Humane Society Of The United States
Miami-Dade Lean & Green posters. Source: The Humane Society Of The United States

Lean & Green posters throughout schools encourage students to pick plates of fresh, healthy vegetables and fruits. Online and in-school menus highlight the vegetable options in light green. Highlighted options under the Lean & Green section are preferably only for fresh vegetables and fruits harvested from local Florida farms.

Local chefs also come in and design new menu items to boost student interest.

“The way we set the menu up, we want to make clear that those choices are readily available,” Parham said.
Dumas said Audra Wright, who runs nutritional wellness within Miami-Dade schools, has also seen an excitement from not only students to try foods they might otherwise not try, but also the cafeteria staff of the schools. Wright is also working with teachers on making Lean & Green a school-wide effort for healthy eating.

The Lean & Green initiative is implemented throughout the entire district, in every elementary, middle, and high school. Kids have been eating the fresh foods and it has shown in the numbers. According to statistical highlights from the districts 2012–2013 report, the majority of students in the district are Latino students at a growing 66.7%, and information from a 2012 district profile reported that 74% of students received meals through free or reduced priced lunches.

Latino students are able to have access to healthy foods through healthy initiatives like Lean & Green and continue to follow the school’s motto to “Eat healthy, every day.”

Community partners that are listed on the district’s nutrition website give support, but do not fund the Lean & Green initiative. However, the district is able to spend in-kind resources and work with school gardens to be resourceful and keep the initiative going.

“We really want our staff and students to know, we are all in this together,” Parham said. “We bring in new items as we test them with students, and hopefully, we will keep up with it.”

The district also plans to continue taste tests so students can determine what should be incorporated in future menus.

Dumas continues to support Parham and the district’s staff with any marketing materials they need.

“Our role at this point is just to support them if there’s any other programing or resources that they need to make sure that this program is sustainable,” Dumas said.

Lean & Green has also helped “link” all the district’s sustainability initiatives, like the compostable plate, and taste and waste projects, helping kids from wasting healthy foods and encouraging them to eat what is on their plate.

“The Lean & Green branding was really something that worked out perfect this school year with many initiatives like the compostable plates, the sustainability, and closing the connection with the garden to the cafeteria,” Parham said.

By The Numbers By The Numbers

22

percent

of Latino youth have depressive symptoms, more than any other group besides Native American youth

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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