Food service director transforms school meal program

Running a school lunchroom like a restaurant may not be the most conventional approach, but for Iowa State University alum Mary Kate Harrison ('10 lodging and food service management, PhD), that approach has proven to be a successful tactic in getting kids to eat healthy foods – while keeping the budget in check.

cafeteriastudents-cropHarrison, general manager of student nutrition services for the Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Fla., says convincing students to eat a nutritious lunch can be challenging. But Harrison, who was named national Outstanding Director of the Year by the School Nutrition Association, is no stranger to difficult situations. When she arrived at the district 20 years ago, its student nutrition budget was operating with an annual loss of $2.2 million.

Within four years, Harrison had overhauled the district's school meal program by cutting expenses, reallocating staff, and revising menus to generate a $3.4 million profit.

Harrison said it was important to view the lunchroom as a business that has to work to reach its customers. Her student nutrition managers, who run 220 kitchens and serve more than 200,000 meals per day, are required to complete an 18-week internship program before they are hired, and lunchroom staff must undergo ongoing training.

"I know that some people think students have to be there so you can give them whatever you want,"  Harrison said. "But it's their choice to come eat with us. We try to give them a food experience and treat them as our very important customers." 

It's not just about dollars and cents, however. Nutrient-dense food is a top priority for the district, and though quality ingredients come at a higher cost, it's a commitment the schools stand by. By incorporating whole grains and organic and locally-grown produce into a kid-friendly menu, students are able to eat healthily and enjoy their food at the same time.

The focus on nutrition comes in part from Harrison's belief that empty stomachs contribute to misbehavior in the classroom. Her advocacy helped lead to a district-wide policy of offering universally-free breakfasts to every student, which Harrison says has led to fewer trips to the school nurse, improved performance, and happier teachers.

"If kids are well-fed before they get to class, they will do better,"  Harrison said. "We are helping build lifelong, healthy habits in these children, and by doing so we are doing our part to support learning in the classroom." 

This story ran in the winter 2010-2011 issue of Human Sciences Matters magazine.

  • Quick Look

    ISU College of Human Sciences alum Mary Kate Harrison revamped the meal program at Hillsborough County School District in Tampa, Fla. She was awarded Outstanding Director of the Year by the School Nutrition Association for her efforts.

  • “We are helping build lifelong, healthy habits in these children”

    — Mary Kate Harrison