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Cafeteria Managers Dive Deep into Food Systems Thinking

By: Christine Grillo

There are 80,000 students in the Baltimore City public school system, and more than 150 people who manage the cafeterias that serve breakfast and lunch to those students. Day to day, the managers are kept busy with logistics and regulations so their cafeterias can run smoothly. But last month, they got a chance to step back and think about food systems as a whole.

“This was the first time anything like this has happened with our cafeteria managers,” said Laura Genello, who helped run the professional day that encouraged cafeteria managers to think broadly and get creative about how they feed school children. Genello adapted a  lesson from FoodSpan, the Center for a Livable Future’s high school curriculum, to run the training that focused on food marketing.

“The cafeteria managers are motivated by their mission of feeding students healthy meals,” said Genello, and the FoodSpan lesson about how fast food messaging competes with healthy eating allowed them to “step back and think about the bigger picture.”

Currently employed as one of four farm-to-school specialists by the Baltimore City Public Schools, Genello has roots at the Center for a Livable Future, where she managed the Center’s aquaponics farm, and then Food System Lab, from 2012 to 2016. After her time at the Center, she earned a master’s degree in organic agriculture in the Netherlands, and returned to Baltimore for the newly created position she now holds. Farm-to-school specialists in Baltimore are lucky—they get to draw on the Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre property owned by the city, which serves as a venue for education in the city.

Using FoodSpan’s material on “Marketing: Under the Influence” (Lesson 11), Genello and three other farm-to-school specialists provided training to cafeteria managers that included activities, trivia games, and discussions about how food companies market their food, and how marketing affects consumers’ food choices. FoodSpan was created for high school students, but is often adapted for use as a continuing education resource for adult learners.

By the end of the training, managers had brainstormed new ways to display and present fresh fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias, and shared ideas about other small practices they could employ day to day to encourage students to make healthy choices.

Genello emphasized that nothing in the lesson was news to the food service workers—the powerful influence of marketing is familiar and known. But the training did spark deeper conversations about tactics that companies use, and a deeper analysis of that plays out in school cafeterias.

“We hope that these cafeteria managers will feel like they have a greater understanding of their role in the food system and are inspired by the power they have to influence students’ food choices,” said Genello.

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