By Lori Lindner
SOLON– Marcia Purington and Kelly Crossley have been cooking up new ways to make school lunch an appetizing experience for everyone.
The two women recently joined the Solon Community School District; Purington will serve as the district’s nutrition director, and Crossley is the assistant director. The addition of the two experienced nutrition personnel is one more step toward increasing student participation in the school’s daily lunch program.
When Solon superintendent Sam Miller came on board in June 2010, two of his initial goals were to improve the quality of school lunches and bring the overall program back into balance budget-wise.
To address what Miller felt were meals of inconsistent appeal, nutritional value and portion size, he first encouraged the development of a soup, sandwich and salad bar option in the middle and high schools, which he felt was well-received.
“The soup, sandwich and salad bar was a fantastic first step for our district in providing a healthy and quality school lunch program,” Miller said.
“The district had been struggling with providing viable options that were attractive to students and staff. This really filled that void.”
While researching lunch programs in other districts, Miller visited Mt. Vernon schools and was impressed with the way things were run there. Because Mt. Vernon was in the process of considering its own budget cuts, Miller began to ponder if there was a way for the two districts to share a nutrition director and create some fiscal efficiency as well.
That’s when he met Marcia Purington, and felt she had a big impact on the success of Mt. Vernon’s lunch program.
“When I learned of Ms. Purington’s leadership in the nutrition program, I was overwhelmed. She puts kids and staff first, and places a real emphasis on customer service,” Miller said. “She really is all about treating students like kings and queens on daily basis. I loved the culture she had built. That’s what we want in Solon.”
Purington was offered a part-time position in the Solon district, with the idea that she would continue to work part-time in Mt. Vernon in the position she has held for 12 years. But her experience in the food service industry goes way back.
“I was literally raised in a restaurant,” she said, as her parents were restaurateurs. Prior to her position in Mt. Vernon, Purington also cooked in a care center kitchen and had managed a convenience store. She enjoys serving in the school setting, she said, because she finds interaction with the students very rewarding.
“The relationship with students and staff is very important,” said Purington. “I think the key to a successful lunch program is treating kids with respect, and taking their opinions into consideration.”
Assistant director Crossely agreed.
“Talking to kids is key,” said Crossley.
Crossley will be both listening and watching as kids go through the lunch line this fall; she hopes to offer at least three fruit and three vegetable choices each day, and see how students respond.
“All the studies show that if kids are offered a larger variety of healthy foods, they are more likely to pick at least one,” she said. That’s one of the strategies she has employed as the food service director at the Independence school district for the last four years, and she understands food consumption. Crossley initially earned a degree in English at Iowa State University, but later returned to school to earn a Culinary Arts degree.
“We moved to making a lot of food from scratch,” she said of her tenure in Independence. Crossley also served as many fresh, locally-grown foods as possible. There, she helped to implement the Farm-to-School program, a state-funded program designed to help schools serve minimally-processed, Iowa-grown food, encourage kids to develop healthy eating habits, and give children hands-on learning opportunities.
Through the Farm-to School program, Independence students planted and cultivated a school garden, received presentations from local food producers, and took field trips to area farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identified Independence as a model school for successful lunch programs, one of just 15 districts in the entire nation to be so recognized.
Purington and Crossley eventually hope to introduce similar concepts into the Solon school lunch program as well, by increasing the fresh and locally-grown food choices, and helping students understand the nutritional value of food they eat and where it comes from.
“We would like to do education in classrooms,” said Purington. “We want to have students try new recipes and give us feedback.”
Whatever schools serve to students and faculty, directors must always follow state and federal nutrition guidelines, Purington noted.
“For example, there are new guidelines, and lowering sodium content is a big thing,” she said. “One way to control some of those issues is to cook from scratch.”
Crossley said communication will be a big part of any potential changes, especially at first.
“We definitely want to know what they think,” Crossley said, and she’s not talking about students alone. “Personally, I like to see support from an educational standpoint as well. I hope teachers talk about the menu before lunch in their classrooms.”
And, she added, they encourage parents to offer comments as well.
“I think parent involvement is huge,” said Crossley. Miller agrees; that’s why the district invested in a new computer system to make it easier to keep track of kids’ eating habits on a regular basis. Parents will be able to check fund balances online, and also view exactly what meal items their kids are purchasing. Further, families will be able to make a single payment for multiple students, rather than having to write separate checks to each school, as in the past.
This year, school lunch prices will increase by 20¢, to $2.05 at Lakeview, and to $2.15 at both the middle school and high school. Breakfast prices remain the same, at $1.05 at Lakeview and $1.15 at both the middle and high schools. Individual milk prices will increase from 40¢ to 45¢.
Aside from that small but immediate change in lunch prices, the new lunch ladies say they are excited to meet Solon’s students and learn what their likes and dislikes are, but will be careful not to introduce too much, too soon.
“It may take a while to generate the participation we want to see in the lunch program,” said Purington. “For now, we want to find out what is working, and what is not. Based on that feedback, we will make changes gradually.”
Miller sees the new combo as a recipe for success.
“We are so fortunate to have two people with such exceptional backgrounds. With Marcia’s experience in customer service and cooking in the trenches, and Kelly, who has done a lot of visionary leadership and brought programs into her district, Solon is benefiting from two quality nutrition directors to lead the Solon district,” said Miller. “We want our students to go home and talk to parents about not only what’s going on in their classrooms, but to also say good things about what we are feeding them. Marcia’s and Kelly’s experience was exactly what we needed in Solon.”