URBANA, Ill. – National School Lunch Week celebrates the commitment and creativity of a group of unsung heroes: school lunchroom staff. An initiative of the School Nutrition Association, National School Lunch Week encourages schools and children’s health and wellness advocates to spread awareness that school meal options are strategically designed to provide balanced and tasty meals critical for student success.

University of Illinois Extension is an active partner in cooperative efforts to provide adequate nutrition in school lunch menus through the ABCs of School Nutrition program. Delivered in-person and online, the program offers training to school lunchroom staff, who are among the most impactful frontline resources available in the effort to ensure school-aged youth are making smart food choices every day.

“Ultimately, our goal is to help schools serve nutritious and delicious meals during National School Lunch Week and all year long,” says Trinity Allison, director of the ABCs of School Nutrition program. “The lunchroom staff that we work with in this program are actively looking for new methods to make sure the kids they serve every day have plentiful, healthy, and fun food options available to them.”

The ABCs of School Nutrition curriculum focuses primarily on schools with federal child nutrition programs. Multiple content experts within the Family and Consumer Sciences division of University of Illinois Extension collaborate to develop resources and train school foodservice staff. The main goal of the program is to help school nutrition staff not only meet USDA minimum requirements, but to improve the quality of their lunch programs overall. While the ABCs program is primarily charged with providing professional development, it also engages participants in creative problem-solving through activities like “Meal of the Month” contests on the ABCs blog and a monthly communication featuring success stories, training opportunities, and program updates.

Extension staff also provide technical assistance to schools, such as helping to apply for grants; creating policies, systems, and environmental changes related to school nutrition and wellness; and assisting with school nutrition programming, such as required programs like Breakfast After the Bell, or encouraged programs like taste tests, school gardens, local farm-to-school programs, and share tables.

“We are able to utilize our networks of expertise at Extension in cooperation with the School Nutrition Association to develop innovative menu plans, train qualified lunchroom staff, and support the implementation of healthy and appealing meals at schools,” Allison explains. “Everyone’s end goal is to foster overall well-being for students while they are at school and beyond, which makes this a very worthwhile and exciting partnership for Illinois Extension.”

This project was originally funded by the Illinois State Board of Education to help Illinois school nutrition professionals fulfill professional development standards maintained by the USDA. The original partnership has been extended and is currently being considered for long-term, project-based funding, indicating the program is successfully engaging and educating school lunch staff on the USDA standards.

“Nutrition is important in the success of students in the classroom and in life, and school lunchroom and foodservice professionals play a critical role in this effort,” says Dr. Shelly Nichols-Richardson, director of Illinois Extension and professor of food science and human nutrition. “These efforts during students’ formative years have the potential to set them up for academic success and life-long nutrition habits. Hats off to these professionals as we celebrate them during National School Lunch Week.”

University of Illinois Extension is part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

 

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