UM Institute of Child Nutrition Helps Schools Transform Their Menus

Goal is to help provide healthier food to fuel student success

The Institute of Child Nutrition at the University of Mississippi helps schools across the country make their menus healthier. Robert Jordan/University Communications.

The Institute of Child Nutrition at UM helps schools across the country make their menus healthier. Robert Jordan/University Communications.

OXFORD, Miss. – The Institute of Child Nutrition at the University of Mississippi promotes best practices for child nutrition programs across the country and is an influential voice in efforts to ensure students have safe, healthy meals.

The institute coordinates the Chef’s Move to Schools initiative, which is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity. ICN also provides resources to promote continuous improvement of child nutrition programs, including guidance on making school meals healthier and safer, while keeping costs feasible for school districts.

ICN staff also offer many free and low-cost training options for child nutrition professionals, and provide resources to help them meet new professional standards requirements.

“We have had people come to us in tears and say that our training has really inspired them to go to the next level,” said Aleshia Hall-Campbell, ICN acting executive director.

The Chefs Move to Schools initiative called on chefs to adopt a local school and work with teachers, parents, school nutritionists and administrators to lend their culinary skills and teach children that eating healthy can be fun. As a result of their work, three ICN staff members recently were honored with a trip to the White House to host an event for chefs involved in the program.

Part of UM’s School of Applied Sciences, the ICN is the only federally funded national center dedicated to applied research, education, training and technical assistance for child nutrition programs. Congress established the ICN in 1989 and it’s funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service grant.

The institute has four divisions: Education and Training, Information Services, and Administration are all at Ole Miss. The ICN’s Applied Research Division is housed at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Since its creation, the ICN has become a go-to source for information, resources, research and on-site training at schools across the country, all at little to no cost. It offers online training resources, free online courses for child nutrition personnel and an expert help desk in support of child nutrition program management.

The institute houses the Child Nutrition Archives, which preserves the history and artifacts of the federally funded child nutrition program, at Ole Miss.

“Students need whole-grain and vitamin-rich food items and fruits and vegetables every day,” Hall-Campbell said. “You need to have a variety of colors on your plate. That’s where you get your vitamins and nutrients, and there are some schools out there doing amazing things with made-from-scratch whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Research indicates that one in three American children is overweight or obese, Hall-Campbell said. Transforming menus in schools and encouraging physical activity doesn’t just help make kids healthier; research also shows healthy food and better academic performance go hand in hand.

“If schools are providing healthy and nutritious meals, they’re also more likely to have children who perform better academically,” Hall-Campbell said. “If the schools can transform themselves, it can make a big difference in the lives of their students.”

Richard Miles, a Florida-based school nutrition director and consultant for the ICN for the last two years, has helped with online courses, been a mentor for nutrition professionals and a regional trainer, as well as a member of ICN’s National Advisory Council.

The institute’s quality interactive online courses, such as Focus on the Customer for school nutrition managers, provide guidance in meeting federal regulations, but also practical advice and tools for best serving students, school staff and others, he said. The courses also offer flexibility for working professionals to fit them into their schedules.

Team Up for School Nutrition Success has been the most impactful professional development program I have ever seen in our field,” Miles said.

“The process of in-depth analysis of specific district challenges and goals, with support from experienced and talented peers, has transformed programs and program leaders. Gathering resources/ideas, creating action plans and instilling confidence has made a great difference in the effectiveness of food and nutrition services provided in local schools across the country.”

Bridgette Matthews, a school nutrition director for Elbert County Schools in Elberton, Georgia, is a member of the ICN National Advisory Council and among more than 140 ICN regional trainers.

Matthews’ school uses ICN resources often, including the Food Buying Guide Calculator, which was developed in partnership with USDA’s Team Nutrition and found on ICN’s website. She said it helps simplify ordering for school nutrition staff.

The school also uses ICN recipes for its menus, among other resources.

“These resources are excellent tools that are readily available, and the best part is that they are of no cost to us,” Matthews said.