By Kelsey Casselbury 2013-10-02 04:02:21
At behavior management sites and juvenile detention centers, school nutrition professionals must adapt to the needs of customers with emotional, physical or criminal issues. In most school cafeterias, it’s not uncommon to witness a child having an occasional meltdown or see a skirmish among students. For some cafeteria teams, though, the stakes are a little higher and these occurrences a bit more frequent. These school nutrition professionals work in behavior management schools or juvenile detention centers, which cater to youth with multiple issues, ranging from mild behavioral or mental problems to criminal records. The school sites, sometimes referred to as “alternative schools” or “special day programs,” might provide lunch or breakfast service to as many as 400 students, while a corrections department juvenile detention center could serve fewer kids but be responsible for all three meals, plus snacks. Working in this setting provides a unique set of challenges. It’s easy for cafeteria team members to get overwhelmed. However, the universal tenet in school nutrition—making sure a child never goes hungry—remains the same. Alternative Behavioral Programs At the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, the school nutrition team working at the district’s special day program has a fundamental goal: to make the students feel like they’re not in a different program at all. Foodservice Director Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, aims to keep things consistent and as normal as possible at the school, which serves approximately 110 K-12 students with behavioral or emotional handicaps, along with some physical disabilities. “The one thing we make sure of is that we don’t make sudden changes,” Gasiorowski says. “If the menu gets changed, something like that can sometimes affect a child [with] a behavioral issue. We don’t want to disrupt their normal routine.” Marla Caplon, RD, LD, director of food and nutrition services for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, fully understands that school meals are meaningful to district customers with special needs—her staff works with six alternative programs daily serving a total of 400 students who have emotional struggles. “They are already separated from the general student population,” Caplon notes. “It is vital that they feel that the meal service that they are receiving is no different from their counterparts in mainstream schooling.” Although there are few significant safety concerns at this type of facility—security guards are present to prevent a child from hurting himself more so than staff members—it does take additional training of cafeteria employees to ensure success. “[The employee] needs to have an understanding of the school they’re going into, and to understand how a behavior outburst might occur,” Gasiorowski explains. Her kitchen manager also spends more time handling certain financial issues; in a regular school setting, students with insufficient account balances are only allowed to charge up to three meals before being served an alternate option, but in the special day program, the staff offers more flexibility in order to maintain the student’s routine. Neither Caplon nor Gasiorowski’s alternative sites have a kitchen on the premises, a contrast from many of the conventional school sites in their districts. Instead, menu items must be prepared off site and then transported to the school. While satelliting is not itself an uncommon meal delivery system, Caplon explains the unique challenges associated with delivering meals to these sites: “In several locations, these buildings house students at all age levels. Meals have to be marked appropriately for [meal compliance] with various ages. A system needs to be in place for meals ordered and not distributed—who is going to pay for these meals? Foodservice delivery trucks need to arrive at an exact prescribed time, and since these facilities do not possess a foodservice license, foodservice staff need to proportion meals appropriately.” Although it comes along with a bit of extra work, the school nutrition staffers assigned to such service sites simply do what they can to make sure each child is fed and is as happy as possible. “Our staff that [work at the special day program] has learned a lot of compassion and feel very heartfelt toward the kids,” Gasiorowski says. “They’re good kids; they’re just struggling.” Juvenile Detention Centers Even the most giving and committed of school nutrition employees could be forgiven if they take pause upon being hired to work at a facility serving youth who have been sentenced to reside there by the court. Although Linda Leonard, child nutrition manager for the Clark County (Ohio) Juvenile Court, understands those hesitations—she’s had employees who arrived on their first day wrought with worry—she’s the first to dispel the notion that it’s dangerous or unsafe to work in the facility. “I just say, ‘It’s okay. It’s fine.’ They have cameras, locked doors—it’s a safe environment,” she asserts. Although the facility isn’t part of the local school district, it does participate in the National School Lunch Program, so it must adhere to the same federal requirements as any other public school. Additionally, it’s a 24/7 residential center, so the staff of three—including Leonard—must provide all three meals, plus snacks, to the 48 (maximum) sentenced youth offenders, ages 11 to 17, along with the staff monitoring and working with them. Beyond security and the requirements of preparing a full day’s complement of meals, Leonard cites challenges familiar to school nutrition operators everywhere: keeping up with federal requirements and handling allergies and other special dietary needs. The latter, however, is a slightly different beast in this setting. In a regular school setting, the school nutrition team is provided with paperwork that documents the medical need for special diets. But at Clark County Juvenile Court, where the teens might be staying for just a single night or up to 90 days, it’s much harder to get that information from parents. “We have to just go by [the youth’s] word,” Leonard explains. “We don’t have way of getting a doctor’s statements.” As a result, one of two scenarios commonly occurs: One, when the teen doesn’t like a particular food—frequently, fish—he tells the staff he has an allergy. In the second, much more serious scenario, the teen purposely eats a restricted food in order to get out of the center. For example, “We had some apple nutrition bars, and they had nuts,” Leonard recounts. “The child knew he was allergic to nuts and knew there were nuts in the bars. But he wanted out of here, so he ate it anyway—and he had to go to the hospital.” In the end, though, the child typically ends up back in the court’s care, often with a longer sentence. “The schools have ways to prevent some of the problems that we have,” Leonard says. “Here, with the [residential] turnover, we never have a chance.” Another unique circumstance in this setting includes not having a central dining area—the foodservice team must load all meals and supplies onto carts, which are wheeled to separate “pods,” where the youth eat. Added security when deliveries are being made is another distinct reality. Another unique circumstance in this setting includes not having a central dining area—the foodservice team must load all meals and supplies onto carts, which are wheeled to separate “pods,” where the youth eat. Added security when deliveries are being made is another distinct reality. “If I touch one child, that means a lot to me. It’s a blessing to have them come and help,” Leonard declares. “They’re helping me and I’m helping them.” She hopes that the time under her tutelage will help these wayward teens to aim for a better life, but sadly, that’s not always the case. “A lot of them come back,” she reports. “I ask them what they’re doing, ‘You promised me you wouldn’t come back.’ Life out there is really hard for these kids.” POV: Finding a Better Path When teens who have served time in the Clark County Juvenile Court system work in the center’s kitchen to complete required community service hours, Linda Leonard asks them to jot down their thoughts in a journal she keeps. Here are some of their writings: “Today was my very first day of community service work. I was very nervous and had no idea what to expect. When I got here this morning, I was taken to the kitchen to help Ms. Linda. She was very nice, too, she told me a little about what she did here, things she cooked, nutrition facts and where everything was. Shortly after that, I met Ms. Rosie. She also was very nice; together we worked getting things done in the kitchen. It was very clear that they enjoy their jobs and feeding the children upstairs were [sic] very important. I also got to taste ‘jail food,’ and it wasn’t bad at all; it really was very tasty. I also learned that you should always enjoy your job; it makes work way easier. Ms. Linda and Rosie are very nice people and I really enjoyed working with them.” “I learned that you should take time and do the best at whatever you do. If you help out more, you can be trusted more. I’ve learned to try my best and to be as friendly as can be. You should also learn to give back to others and to appreciate what others do for you. Also, always respect your elders—this is an important part of life.” “I learned that working in the kitchen is a lot of work. I also learned how to use a can opener, the right way to do dishes and sweep and mop the floor. Ms. Linda says you should always do the job the right way the first time. I also got to taste-test some good food today that I haven’t eaten before. I would like to work in the kitchen again someday.” “Today I helped cook and clean in the kitchen. I learned it is a lot of work, and now I know that this something that I don’t want to do.” “I enjoyed working with the ladies in the kitchen, you have inspired me to work hard and do the right thing. I had fun with you, even though my feet really hurt. I hope you ladies never forget me. I will remember this for the rest of my life. I will do my best at school so I can graduate, and I will respect my elders.” Kelsey Casselbury is School Nutrition’s associate editor. Photography by ducan1890 and Renphoto/ www.istockphoto.com.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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