Since he took office in 2010, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has made improved school nutrition programs a top priority.
Now, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has raised the bar even further with the statewide introduction of Nutrislice, an innovative software program that allows school districts to educate students about nutrition and motivate them to consume healthier foods in school cafeterias.
“Our goal is to use technology and social media to communicate with kids and turn them around when it comes to eating healthier foods,” said Robin Safley, director of the division of food, nutrition and wellness at FDACS.
When Safley first discovered Nutrislice technology last year, she said, she realized immediately that it could serve as a further catalyst for FDACS efforts to promote the consumption of more fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods such as whole grains in school nutrition programs.
“What I was looking for was something that could begin to change behaviors to get kids eating more healthy foods and to do a better job of communicating with parents about what’s going on in the cafeteria and why healthier foods are important and good for their kids,” Safley said. “And part of that was also letting them know what the actual food items are and what we’re doing day to day.”
The Nutrislice platform includes three key components. One creates detailed online menus that include nutritional information on each item being served and which can be accessed via a self-contained app on home computers, laptops or smart phones. The second is a texting component that empowers students to interact about foods, nutrition and their likes and dislikes. The third allows schools to create digital sign boards in cafeterias and communicate with students about the foods being served each day.
Funding for the deployment of the technology has been provided as part of a $5 million school nutrition grant awarded to Florida by USDA last year. After Safley submitted a specific request for approval last year, she was allowed to use some of the grant money to license Nutrislice for all 67 of Florida’s school districts.
So far, 53 have chosen to introduce it.
Safley has now initiated a study with leading nutritional researchers from Harvard Business School, Cornell University and Brigham Young University to measure the success of the effort. “The goal,” Safley said, “is to find out whether we can, in fact, do an intervention with kids around foods - and specifically fruits and vegetables, such as broccoli or blueberries - and actually have impact on the food choices they are making.”
So far, results have been surprising and encouraging. Students from elementary school through high school have embraced the program and begun to provide feedback. They have also enthusiastically participated in competitions at their schools to determine who consumes the most healthy foods, such as broccoli, on a particular day.
Parents have also strongly supported the effort. “It’s amazing how many parents are now going to the menus to learn about the food their children are being fed,” Safley said.
Her latest effort is to create a way for children and their parents to “pre-commit” to healthy menu options for the next day in advance. “The question we want to address is whether, if you give a child more control over what they eat, do they make a healthier choice if they have more time to make that choice?” Safley said.
The Nutrislice software has also been strongly praised by the school districts that have adopted it.
“It is an excellent marketing and communication tool,” said Beverly Girard, Sarasota County Schools director of food and nutrition services. “There might be other programs out there that do similar things, but there is no other program that does all of the things Nutrislice does.”
Girard learned about Nutrislice last summer and began to deploy it in November. A phased rollout to the county’s 50 schools is now underway.
One Nutrislice capability that is of particular interest to Girard is its ability to allow students and parents to identify food allergens. “Let’s say a child is allergic to dairy products,” Girard said. “All a parent has to do is click on ‘Dairy’ as one of the allergens, and those food items containing any dairy product can be identified.”
That function can also be used to better monitor foods for diabetic students.
“And those are things we’ve never been able to do before, without a lot of work,” Girard said.
Like Safley, Girard has also heard enthusiastic support from parents for the new technology in general. “I was just in a meeting this morning with some parents,” she said. “And they are pretty much blown away by this because it’s so simple to access, but the information it offers is so valuable.”
Florida farmers also have reason to be enthusiastic, Safley said.
The more fresh fruits and vegetables that students eat, the more products growers can sell into the state’s very successful and growing “farm to school” program that offers them the opportunity to sell to school districts throughout the school year.
For more information on the Nutrislice technology, visit www.nutrislice.com.