By Susan Davis Gryder 2013-10-02 04:50:04
Every week, there’s a special group of children who line up by the thousands to receive a nutritious school lunch. Some of them are here in the United States, while others are halfway around the globe, but they all savor tasty spaghetti and meat- balls, a chicken sandwich, fresh fruits and vegetables, cold milk...well, pretty much the same menu items that kids in school districts all across the country enjoy. The difference? These students are the children of military service members, and they’re having lunch on a U.S. military installation. If you’ve ever been on a military base, you know that in many ways it’s a complete world unto itself, with its own housing, shopping, recreational activities and dining. Military installations in this country and around the world often have schools, too, to serve the dependents of service members. The school nutrition professionals who provide healthful meals at these sites encounter some unique challenges in working toward their special mission. Camp Lejeune: Semper Fi On the Atlantic coastline near Jackson- ville, N.C., is Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune. This massive military base covers 246 square miles, including 11 miles of beaches that may be used in amphibious operations training. Some 180,000 people live on the base and in the surrounding area. Among these residents are school-age children who attend school at the Camp Lejeune Dependent Schools (CLDS). CLDS has one high school, one middle school, three elementary schools, one intermediate school (grades 3-5) and one primary school (pre-K-2) school. Specific enrollment numbers vary, as soldiers deploy or are reassigned, but CLDS serves several thousand students at any given time. According to CLDS Child Nutrition Director Clyde Thomas, when it comes to the meal program, the base schools are, in most ways, like any conventional U.S. school district. “We observe all federal and state guidelines,” he says. CLDS participates in the National School Lunch Program and Team Nutrition. The school nutrition operation participates in a farm-to-school program with North Carolina growers and offers a free six-week summer feeding program. What’s a little different is the fact that the CLDS school nutrition team also must answer to the Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS), the military agency that oversees base schools in the United States. “To accomplish our mission, we have to make sure that the federal and state agencies are happy—and that the military base is happy,” notes Thomas, who is a civilian employee. The bottom line? More paperwork and reports. Another challenge is the aforementioned ever-changing enrollment in CLDS. As military families transfer on and off base, this means year-round processing of free and reduced-price meal applications for those families that qualify. “Some people have a misconception that if families are part of the military, then they have everything given to them. But school meals aren’t free just because you’re on base,” clarifies Thomas. “The guidelines are the same as they are for our counter- parts outside the gates.” In fact, he notes, most families pay for their children’s school meals. But continual transfers have another consequence for school meal operations: Many members of the CLDS school nutrition team are military spouses. Transfers can add to Thomas’ hiring and training burdens, so he tries to project the periods when deployment or reassignment orders tend to be on an upswing and plan for that turnover. Various training classes, especially in food safety and sanitation, must be conducted throughout the year to ensure that new (and existing) staff are up to date on processes, procedures and requirements. Fort Bragg: Army Strong Further inland in North Carolina, the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg has a population of almost 40,000—making it large enough to be its own census location—and it educates an estimated 5,000 children at its base-sited schools. Like Clyde Thomas, Fort Bragg Child Nutrition Director Doris Hickman says she complies with all state and federal requirements for school meals, and she also has to answer to multiple authorities, reporting both to a Fort Bragg superintendent, as well as to DDESS. Hickman, a civilian, has worked at Fort Bragg for 31 years, and she sees her mission as identical to that of her counter- parts in community-based school districts. But with most of her staff having military connections, Hickman concedes that training can be a particular challenge. “People move a lot, so I’m constantly training,” she says. “Sometimes, people come to work and then two months down the road, they have to move. Some have six months’ notice, so they can finish the school year, but some of them don’t get that much notice.” Hickman addresses these realities with the help of a designated staff trainer and a year-round, on-the-job training approach. Somewhat surprisingly, Hickman says she often prefers to work with employees who don’t come straight from other foodservice-related jobs. “Sometimes ‘new’ is better than ‘old school,’” she notes. New or experienced, all Fort Bragg foodservice staff must undergo a back- ground check, providing fingerprints and using smartcards to access network computers with extra security. School Lunch Beyond Our Borders American soldiers stationed overseas also often have their families with them. This number is increasing, as some installations like the U.S. Navy base in Naples, Italy, now mandate that active duty members with families must live on base, in order to consolidate costs and reduce allowances provided for off-base housing. School-age dependents typically attend base schools that provide an American-style education and services that include school meals. The Navy and Marines oversee the schools—and school foodservice—on their own bases; the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) operates the rest. AAFES schools can be found in 10 countries, and they vary in size. For example, Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, which is the largest base outside of the United States, has an onsite enrollment of 3,600 K-12 students in four different schools. On the other hand, in Incirlik, Turkey, the base has just one elementary/middle and one high school, serving an enrollment of several hundred students. Adrian Hinson, senior restaurant program planner for AAFES’ School Foodservice Directorate, explains that overseas base schools follow all federal rules for school meals, as well as certain military regulations, such as those related to military inspection of all outside food vendors. Plus, AAFES’ Public Health Department conducts food safety inspections, much as a local department of health would in the United States. A Taste of Home Students eating in an AAFES school cafeteria enjoy the familiar American favorites at every location: AAFES uses a standard menu for all its schools around the world. “What we’re serving in Ramstein, we’re also serving in Korea, Japan and Italy,” notes Hinson. Typical entrées include pizza, hamburgers, meatball subs, pulled pork tacos and even a monthly “breakfast for lunch” promotion. In addition, the menu also features a daily vegetarian option. AAFES does allow some variation by each site, particularly if local kids also attend base schools; for example, in Italy, children at base schools enjoy a pasta day each week and can select spaghetti with sauce every day. All school menus must be reviewed and approved by AAFES dietitian Captain Diane Ryan. Just as on U.S. bases, military families on overseas installations must pay for lunch or apply for free and reduced-price meals. AAFES follows the Alaska reimbursement rate structure, given the procurement and food distribution challenges, as well as higher costs for locally sourced food and labor. Captain Ryan consolidates reimbursements from all the bases and submits them together. Producing such typical American meals in far-flung locations can present special challenges. AAFES procures all its proteins from the United States, often as USDA Foods. It operates bakeries in four locations throughout Germany; baked goods are delivered fresh or frozen to bases in Europe, Japan and Korea. “Anything that we serve on a military base has to come from approved sources that have their distribution centers or plants inspected by military public health officials,” explains Hinson. Providing milk to students also requires special planning, since most countries don’t have the same requirements for milk fortification as is routine in this country. Right now, Hinson says fortified milk is shipped from Germany to all its overseas bases. Fresh fruits and vegetables usually can be locally sourced from producers that have been inspected and approved. “Produce and milk that are purchased [for school meal programs] in a foreign country also include the costs of currency exchange,” notes Hinson, “so the costs for local ingredients are much higher for us than in the U.S.” Labor can present some unique challenges on overseas bases, says Hinton. AAFES workers are usually locals, although some spouses or other U.S. civilians may take AAFES foodservice jobs. Every local employee must speak and understand English; all training materials are provided in English. Hinton explains that on-base school meal operations often put local nationals with proficient English skills into supervisor roles and task them with assisting in training. A Tradition of Support Providers of school meals to military dependents see themselves as part of a team, working to support the service members who support our country. Like many services for American soldiers and their families, military-based school foodservice is a labor of love and duty. As Clyde Thomas of Camp Lejeune Dependent Schools puts it, “For me, as a former service member, working on the base is close to my heart. It’s fulfilling to provide [meals] to service members and their families, because they do so much for our country. I get a lot of joy out of it and a sense of accomplishment.” Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by aabejon and xril/ istockphoto.com.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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