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Q & A with RUSD’s Rodney K. Taylor, Director of Nutrition Services

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By Ashley Jones

Positive changes to Riverside Unified School District’s (RUSD) nutritional program have made headlines across the state. In an effort to promote better nutrition and reduce childhood obesity, RUSD has begun to implement major improvements to their nutritional programs including additional salad bars.

The salad bar concept, pioneered by Rodney K. Taylor, RUSD’s Director of Nutrition Services, provides students with greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis during lunch. The produce is purchased from small, local farms in southern California. The concept has been recognized as a “national model” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the California Department of Education (CDE).

For 34 years now, Rodney K. Taylor has served in the food service industry in various capacities including college and university, fast food, dining, management consultant, and school food service administration. Prior to his arrival to RUSD in 2002, he served as Director of Food and Nutrition Services at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

Taylor recently interviewed with Black Voice News to talk about some of his experiences and the facts about school lunches.

Black Voice News: Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids (HHFK) Act of 2010, your district has begun to implement major changes to its nutritional programs. What is the difference between the old nutrition standards and the new standards?

Rodney K. Taylor: The major difference is that now there is one national standard. Before a district could choose between several standards to implement. The new standard requires the following; Fruit: A serving must be offered daily. Vegetable: More specific servings must be offered weekly (dark green, red/orange, beans/peas, starchy, and other). Grains: Half of the grains offered must be whole grain rich. There is now a minimum and maximum weekly requirement for grains. Meat/Meat Alternative: Daily serving size has decreased and there is now a minimum and maximum weekly requirement. Milk: Fat-free flavored, unflavored, and 1% unflavored are offered. Calories: Nutrient standards must be met over a week. Minimum and maximums must be met on calories.

BVN: Has it been a challenge to meet the new standards?

RKT: There has not been a huge challenge as far as meeting the new standards, rather the documentation illustrating that we have met the standards have been a challenge.

BVN: True or false, as school lunches get healthier, they cost more?

RKT: False, first and foremost is that the school food service program must run like a business instead of an entitlement program. By making effective use of USDA foods, you can reduce overall food cost while improving the meal quality and nutritional integrity.

BVN: What do you consider to be most positive about this change?

RKT: The new standards are a great first-step in combating childhood obesity by placing greater emphasis on the consumption of more fresh fruits and vegetables, and reducing caloric intake.

BVN: At times, the media presents certain negative images related to school lunches and many times, there’s a gap between what we believe to be the true meaning of an object versus how it is represented in the media. Over the past few months, a number of national media outlets have featured articles about school lunches being “too healthy” and children are “hungry” as result of the new standards. Do you face any challenges related to school lunches having a bad reputation as portrayed by the media? Can you offer any thoughts toward the negative coverage?

RKT: No, we have emphasized the importance of teaching our children to become life-long healthy eaters by placing salad bars in 29 of our 31 elementary schools, thus providing greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables, encouraging healthy eating habits, and by providing nutrition education to students and parents. Our focus has always been on providing nutritious meals, and thus by doing so, the new regulations only reinforced what was already happening in our district. The negative coverage of a few school food service programs hurt the image of all school food service programs. We must change negative perceptions of school food. Such negative coverage erodes parent trust, and ultimately, student participation, which drives revenue. Without such additional revenue, it would be hard to improve the quality and variety of meals offered.

BVN: Has RUSD adopted a social media plan to tell its story given that RUSD is considered a model district for nutrition and health?

RKT: Yes, we’ve become very adept at telling our own story to change the negative perceptions people have about school food service. The district uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and SchoolTube. If you were to access SchoolTube you can find episodes of Chef Ryan Douglas teaching parents to cook, inexpensive, healthy, and quick meals featuring the use of fresh fruits and vegetables.

BVN: What’s next for RUSD’s Nutrition Services?

RKT: We will continue to lead by providing a model of food service that can be replicated across the country, so that our children are being provided meals that will prolong their life while ensuring the quality of their lives by teaching life-long healthy eating habits. The Chef (Ryan Douglas) is busy preparing new recipes that are delicious, nutritious, and kid-friendly like his latest platform of “Rotisserie Chicken.”

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