The School Nutrition Association has named Virginia's Fairfax County the 2010 District of the Year in School Nutrition. The independent, nonprofit agency awarded the district $25,000 to “further improve and enhance the district’s school nutrition program operations.”


What is the Fairfax County district doing so well? It seems like the district goes out of its way to create healthy meals and to include students though hands-on, and tastebuds-on, research and education.

The Fairfax County Public School’s Food and Nutrition Services department:

  • Hosts monthly student taste tests, including surveys of students’ favorite fruits and vegetables.
  • Partners with teachers, hosting about 500 nutrition education sessions a year.
  • Reaches the broader community by conducting monthly nutrition education sessions in Head Start classes and at senior citizens centers and participating in about 30 district health fairs a year.
  • Created the “Give Me 5! Colors That Jive” program introduces students to new and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables each month (such as jicama, butternut squash and sweet potato wedges). 
  • Teaches students about healthy food choices and gives them the opportunity to bring home some basic cooking skills through “Fairfax Kids Cooking.”
  • Created a tool for parents, an online videos and Nutrition Calculator for Healthy Snacks, for talking with their children about nutritious choices.
  • Posts nutrition information for entrees at the serving lines of the cafeteria.
  • Has some of the strictest, competitive food regulations in the country with cafeterias that offer more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products.
One of the plans the district has for the award money is to “develop an animated video, “5 Star Lunch,” for Preschool through grade 6 students to teach them about healthy food choices and how to assemble a well-balanced lunch from the variety of daily lunch options.”

A look at the lunch menu shows that it’s not so far removed from the typical menu that many schools have as far as entrees go, but the side choices I see are much more varied and nutritious than the typical carrot sticks of French fry options. On one single day when the entrée is baked cheese sticks or a pork egg roll, students can chose from Minestrone soup, orange quarters & kiwi, pineapple, raisins, and two different salads.

Is this perhaps a happy medium — a place where students’ tastes and good nutrition begin to meet? Make the entrée something the students are comfortable and familiar with, but make the sides varied and nutritious? Actually, when I think about it, this isn’t all that different from the lunches I serve the throngs of boys who run through my home on any given summer afternoon. I’ll serve them grilled cheese sandwiches and then serve sliced apples, carrots, strawberries or grapes with them instead of something like chips or cookies.

I’m struck by the fact that nowhere on the above list of things that the district does do I find the words “organic,” “partners with local farmers,” or “grows school gardens.” Yet, when I look at the list I think, “Those are some pretty smart ideas.”

Not all districts can grow school gardens or draw from local farmers (but hooray for those that can), but most districts can adopt some of the practices that Fairfax County has put in place.  

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Virginia's Fairfax County wins best school food award
School uses monthly student taste parties to help create menus.