Have you ever wondered what your kids are eating for lunch? Local mom Kristina Hernandez interviewed Joe Urban, director of Food and Nutrition Services of Greenville County Schools. She asked him all the questions about school food that you might have wondered about but never asked. Here are the answers!
Food. Our kids eat it every day at school during the school year. They grab those lunch trays and peruse the options, talk to the nice lunch lady, and ultimately choose what they want to nourish their bodies and get through the rest of the day.
But where does that food come from and who decides what to make?
Last year at The Children’s Museum of the Upstate’s Countdown to Kindergarten event, I met Joe Urban. Joe and his team were manning the new Greenville County Food Services (GCFS) food truck, a somewhat revolutionary concept that brings much-needed food into under served areas of the county.
I ended up having a great conversation with him and started following his Instagram account (@schoolfoodrocks), which seriously made me want to get in line with my kid at school every day to try their lunch options. They post all kind of yummy options – roasted vegetables, fish tacos, and braised brisket – stuff that I’d love to learn to cook in my own kitchen. This was no ordinary school lunch food. My interest was piqued so I reached out to Joe to learn more.
As the school year heats up, Joe and his team are working hard to deliver tasty and healthy options to 76,000 kids in 101 school and special centers. They have 750 employees who serve breakfast, lunch and after school snacks and are the largest food service program in the state, and 44th in the entire nation.
Joe is the Director for the Food and Nutrition Services department of Greenville County Schools, which means he oversees the food service operations for all Greenville County Schools locations. He was kind enough to answer our questions about food service at Greenville County schools.
My conversation with Joe Urban
Kidding Around Greenville: How does the Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services decide what to serve every day at GC schools?
Joe Urban: We have developed a three-week repeating cycle menu for all grade levels. Elementary students have four different menu choices every day for lunch, and Middle and High students have seven to nine different choices every day. All schools offer a scratch-made Soup and Salad Bar three times each week and up to six different varieties of fresh fruit selections daily. The cycle menu will be modified twice during the school year to account for new recipes and seasonal ingredients.
KAG: How do you come up with new recipes?
JU: We pay close attention to trends in the foodservice industry and develop recipes based on what is hot right now in the fast casual and higher education (college) segments of the industry.
Today’s students are very food savvy and demand higher quality ingredients. Students love international foods, especially Asian, Italian, and Mexican and they also like to customize their meals. We listen closely to what they say and develop our menus accordingly.
Good examples of this include our Build Your Own Taco Bar, the Build Your Own Mashed Potato Bar, the Build Your Own Mac-N-Cheese Bar, our student-created Penne Pasta Pie, our new Meatball Sub, and our new Build Your Own Grain Bowls featuring Korean BBQ and Mahi Mahi with a large variety of topping choices including Kimchi and Pickled Red Onions.
High quality seafood including Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon, Mahi Mahi, Alaskan Pollock, Catfish and others will be served a minimum of once per week in Elementary schools and twice per week in Middle and High schools this year. New concepts including a Build Your Own Chicken & Waffle Bar, a scratch-made Soup & Sandwich Bar, a Build Your Own Burger Bar and others are currently in development and will be tested with students during this upcoming school year.
KAG: Where do you source your ingredients?
JU: We work with a number of local vendors and source as many products as possible locally. Through our produce vendor, we have developed strong relationships with local farmers who plant fields specifically based on the needs of Greenville County Schools.
We have also entered into a new partnership with a local cattle farmer in Brasstown, NC to source all the ground beef we will be using in our scratch-made meals. These cattle are humanely raised, fed a strict vegetarian diet, are always on grass, and are never treated with antibiotics. Fresh, no antibiotic ever beef in school meals is a huge commitment on our part to ensure our students only receive the highest quality food possible.
KAG: Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services is the largest in the state. How do you manage serving good food on a daily basis to thousands of kids a day?
JU: It takes a huge team of highly trained and dedicated foodservice employees to meet our quality standards on a daily basis. We are very fortunate to have buy in from our employees on our mission to reinvent school food. We believe that we are positioned correctly at this time in our careers to push the perceived boundaries of school food service and provide our students with the greatest dining experiences possible.
KAG: Can you tell me a bit about your food truck? It’s pretty new, right?
JU: We purchased the food truck one year ago to help us increase the number of meals we can provide to needy students during the summer months. We operate more than 50 school and community feeding sites in the summer months as part of the USDA funded Summer Food Service Program.
We realized quickly that although we had these sites scattered throughout the county, there were many pockets of our community that needed our services but were not able to make it to one of our sites due to transportation issues. The food truck is the perfect answer to that issue: we simply take the food right to the kids that need it the most.
During the school year, it gets used as surprise pop up events at high schools to sample new menu items during lunch, sample fresh fruit to elementary students, and support various school functions.
KAG: Can parents volunteer to help Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services come up with recipes/test food – or is there something parents can do to help your mission?
JU: We welcome any suggestions and parents are always welcome to come sample items with us during their student’s lunch period.
KAG: Your Instagram page looks delicious. How do you decide which schools get to try out those meals?
JU: The vast majority of the food shown on all of our social media platforms are served at all schools. When we test out new items the schools are chosen by random so we can test the items out with different students as often as possible.
Will you look at school lunches in a new light this school year?