There's plenty of research that shows better nutrition in schools can lead to improved test scores and classroom behavior.
Healthy meal planning has many challenges from allergy concerns, to personal food choices like meat-free diets, especially in a large school district like Greenwich where a third of students eat in their school cafeteria every day.
"I believe we serve just under 3,000 meals per day to around 9,000 students," said Greenwich Public Schools' new Interim Food Services Director Dave Nanarello. Until recently, Nanarello was the food service manager for the Greenwich school district overseeing operations for kindergarten through eighth grade.
"Having been in the industry for years now, the biggest trend is certainly nutritional interest by students and parents alike. That is to say, they respond more favorably to healthier options overall," he said.
“Dave is already a strong leader for our food services team and will make a great addition to the central office as the interim food services director for this year. He has an unwavering commitment to continuous improvement across our foodservice operations and offerings,” said Greenwich Public Schools Superintendent Toni Jones.
Nanarello was appointed to succeed John Hopkins who retired and moved out West. He has been with the district since November 2017. In his previous role, he managed operations for 14 kitchens and cafeterias.
His title is interim food services director which allows for the continuity of the day-to-day oversight while the administrative team can conduct an in-depth and thorough search to permanently fill the position. Nanarello may also apply for it, according to school spokesperson Sasha Houlihan.
Before Greenwich, Nanarello was district executive chef for Westport Public Schools, director of dining services for Greenwich Academy, and held numerous other management positions across the corporate sector. He has a degree in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America and certificates in foodservice management and safety. He was born and raised in Stamford and lives in Fairfield County.
He moved to Florida briefly to help his father run a restaurant, but after returning to Connecticut, his focus has been on improving breakfast and lunch preparation and service for students and expanding nutritional awareness through student councils and parent participation.
"Special needs concerning healthier food concerns are being addressed by listening to our students and parents while engaging in discussions with our Food Services Committee participants," he said.
Dr. Sara Seidelmann, a nutritionist with Greenwich Hospital, participates in a food services' monthly menu planning sub-committee and helped with guiding the food services program in creating a core values statement, Nanarello added. The collaboration helps with choosing and integrating better products, as well as training staff in healthier food preparation techniques, he explained.
A good way to address dietary choices such as vegetarian or gluten-free is by adding more items in those categories to the menu. An example in Greenwich is gluten-free rolls with a tossed salad, rather than bread croutons.
Another trend his district follows is local sourcing of produce. These are more plentiful at harvest time in Connecticut and New York but less-so in winter months.
"The supply becomes less in the cold New England winter when products come from California and Florida, sometimes as far away as Chile, Nanarello said. An example is red seedless grapes, "as their seasons are the opposite of our hemisphere," he noted.
Another school district trend is to have gardens on-site and though there are gardens at some of the Greenwich schools, those are used for classroom learning, not food sourcing for district-wide cafeteria purposes. A typical lunch meal for an entire school district is based on several complex criteria, according to Nanarello.
"Meals are based on a macro-nutrient profile, this can be understood by what is widely recognized as the USDA MyPlate standard. Under our National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines, known as a meal pattern, we are required to serve daily portions of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat or meat alternatives (such as beans), and milk. The portion sizes of which are determined for students by their grades K-5, 6-8, 9-12, which progressively increase as the child grows," he said.
The issue of vending machines in schools has been controversial for parents, school officials and the government for years so Nanarello was asked about these in Greenwich. There are two at the high school, but the items sold in the machines are determined by the school and vending company, not food services.
Food is a very personal topic among parents and families and the district strives to listen to feedback, according to Nanarello. With a student body of just over 9,000, many different likes, desires and dislikes are expected.
"We have a new program this year where we'll engage with school student councils to get more feedback which we fully expect to give us further input to improving our menu items."
Asked what are the leading trends in food services in public schools, Nanarello said: "Having been in the industry for years now, the biggest trend is certainly nutritional interest, by students and parents alike. That is to say, they respond more favorably to healthier options overall."