At FNCE last fall, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, school nutrition cheerleader and the mastermind behind the School Meals That Rock website, showcased school nutrition programs across the country during her Lenna Frances Cooper lecture. With an increased interest in school nutrition programs and demand from consumers to have diverse menus, expansive farm-to-school programs and robust nutrition education curricula — all while actively being involved on social media to promote programs to parents, students and the community — the opportunities for unique RDN positions in these programs are higher than ever before.
Opportunities in School Nutrition
Menu Planning. As Gen Y and Gen Z consumers, students crave innovative menu concepts, while school nutrition professionals must adhere to strict nutritional guidelines and budget restrictions. Food allergy management in school nutrition programs is on the rise. Districts across the country now have gluten-free and vegetarian menus while also identifying the common allergens in the meals they serve. Dietitians assist districts who are transitioning to these special menus by carefully reviewing their recipes and ingredient lists and providing suggestions for alternative items that will meet both guidelines and budgetary constraints.
Farm to School. The increased interest in sustainability and food sourcing has allowed this program to expand in districts across the country. Dietitians are spearheading these programs in school districts by developing education materials for students on edible gardens, composting and environmental safety while also using their expertise as food and nutrition experts to help students understand how they can utilize their garden bounty in a variety of recipes. From school garden harvest meals to discussing the plant parts students can consume, the possibilities are endless in this role.
Nutrition Education. This is a sought-after position to help students understand the impact food choices have on their futures and academic success. Dietitians use their expertise in the field to develop curricula to target specific age groups on a variety of essential topics, from fruit and vegetable consumption to physical activity. These roles allow dietitians to be creative. Whether it is having a smoothie challenge to promote breakfast consumption or veggie bingo to help students learning English in school recognize their vegetables, the opportunities are endless.
Marketing and Communications. The push for school nutrition programs to engage with their consumers on social media is one that has been steadily rising. While larger districts hire dietitians specifically for this role, smaller districts have one person who might be managing the social media, menu planning, accounting, finances and acting as a substitute manager when they have someone out. This provides dietitians with the opportunity to seek full-time employment within a district or to act as a consultant for a handful of smaller districts. Whether it is managing websites and social media accounts, creating infographics and handouts, or writing blog or newsletter content, these opportunities allow dietitians to establish themselves in their field as the expert. This also is a wonderful way for a dietitian interested in marketing and communications to dabble without committing to doing this on his or her own.
Tips for Success
Interested in a career in school nutrition? Do your homework. Research the regulations and guidelines put into place by the USDA so that you understand the strict rules school nutrition programs must follow. Take time to meet with the school nutrition director at the district near you. This will allow you to find out about their program and to see what they are currently doing so that you can see where you might be able to help.