Sustainability in School Nutrition

Full Transcript

Dalia  0:00 

Hi everybody! Thank you for joining me for another episode of School Nutrition Dietitian. We've all been hearing a lot about sustainability and different initiatives, but when you think about cost, you may wonder how is it even possible for school nutrition to be involved in sustainable initiatives and bringing more clean label products to our children? Is that something within our reach? Well, today I have Ryan on from Austin ISD, so he can share how his district is joining in.


Theme Song  0:29 

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]


Dalia  1:03 

Hello, Ryan.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  1:05 

Hi, this is Ryan, how are you?


Dalia  1:07 

Good. How are you?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  1:09 

I'm great. Thanks.


Dalia  1:10 

Well, thanks so much for being willing to come on again. I'm hoping that that's the last time that ever happens to me. So, no more technical problems from here on out. I'm going to speak it into existence. So, since we already have done this, we could just jump right into that


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  1:31 

Sounds good to me.


Dalia  1:31 

Okay. So, can you tell me how did you end up in school nutrition, like, what sparked your interest in dietetics? And what was the pathway to school nutrition, in particular?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  1:44 

 Okay, it's been a pretty long road, I think. So, I initially went to school for Culinary Arts. And you know, I worked in restaurants when I was in high school and just kind of developed a love for cooking and for food. And, so I went to Johnson & Wales University for Culinary Arts and got a degree there. And culinary arts worked in kitchens, you know, during my time there, and then they started this kind of new program at Johnson & Wales where you can get a bachelor's degree in nutrition, culinary nutrition, bachelor's degree, which, you know, I was actually the first graduate of the class of that program. And now it's kind of a dietetic program but specifically more focused on food, which I think you know, dietetic programs have gotten a little bit better with making sure that dietitians have a knowledge base of cooking and food in general. And it's a little bit moving a little tiny bit away from the science and more towards that, which I think is really important. But that was one of the first programs that did that. In my undergrad, I took some nutrition classes. I really enjoyed them. I love science. I like, you know, math and you know, so I was really kind of interested in that and kind of went that direction instead of the culinary side and I did my dietetic internship at Keene State College in Southern New Hampshire, I had a really enjoyable experience doing that. And then after that I actually went into the Peace Corps, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, for two years as a health volunteer doing a lot of work on food and water security kind of issues, a lot of maternal and child health issues related to nutrition and things like that. And then so I finished my Peace Corps experience, spend two years in Niger, and then moved back from Chicago originally, and moved back to Chicago, I worked actually as a WIC nutritionist for a few years, while I was earning a master's degree in education. Think my ultimate goal was at that point was to sort of teach or, you know, earn a PhD at some point, maybe teach them at collegiate level, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, to be quite honest. And then I got a job at towards the tail end of my time in Chicago working doing like menu planning and stuff like that, for a sort of in district charter school system with Chicago public schools. And did that for nine months or so. And I kind of enjoyed that. It was- it was interesting, good learning opportunity, something different anyway, than the WIC experience.


Dalia  4:13 

Was- that would have been the first time you had to really look at the meal pattern, and specifically plan a menu with restrictions? What was that training experience like?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  4:26 

It was a, it was pretty non-existent, to be quite honest. Kind of, "Here you go." So, you know, I mean, I was the only- there was nobody above me. It was- I was the only dietitian or only one working with that aspect of thing and food service and doing all the ordering for the programs and things like that. So, there wasn't really a lot of, you know, training and stuff like that.


Dalia  4:53 

And this was a, this was kind of prior to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act so, regulations were a little bit less than they are now, but still pretty stringent. And there's still a meal pattern to follow and stuff like that. So you just read the regulations, and made it happen?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  5:14 

Pretty much. Yeah, that was kind of how it was I, you know, kind of handed the manual handed the manual and say, "Have at it."


Dalia  5:24 

Okay, I think that happens to a lot of people. Do you have any tips for anybody else having that same experience?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  5:33 

Uh, you know, I mean, hopefully you get the job, like, in a year, that's not an audit year. So maybe there's some leeway to make a mistake here and there. You know, because it does happen, particularly now with the regulations being so tight, like they are. But you know, reach out, there's generally it depends on the state, or the region that you're in, there's a lot of training opportunities and things like that generally, from, you know, whether it's the Department of Ag or State Board of Education, who runs the school nutrition programs, generally offers a lot of training, the, the Institute of Child Nutrition has a lot of information available to it, and I, you know, reach out to other people, colleagues, you know, because we're all on the same boat, you know, and, and there's always people who are willing to offer some guidance to you.  I feel like it's a pretty relatively tight-knit community in school nutrition, and people are always willing to share ideas, and, you know, and things like that.


Dalia  6:32 

Absolutely. Okay, great. That's a good tip. So, after that, so right now you are at the point where you just had like nine months of menu planning, where did you go from here?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  6:42 

Yes. So, after that kind of, this is 2009-ish, the economy kind of bottomed out in Chicago, that job was kind of eliminated via that school, that charter school system. I don't think they actually exist anymore. I think they shut down pretty close, pretty soon after that. So, I moved to Austin, where I'm at now in 2010. And I got a job right away when I moved here as a health science technology teacher under the Career and Technology Education umbrella in a, in a public school here in Austin, Independent School District. And so I taught nutrition, fitness course, pharmacology and anatomy and physiology, all senior-level kind of practical type courses where my students would get like certifications as pharmacy technicians and phlebotomist, CNAs, personal trainers, things like that. So, it's kind of like a career-ready program. I did that for seven years, I really, really enjoyed it. And I think really, people ask me why I left teaching. And in general, I think there's a couple of reasons. One, six years of it, as a captain, I felt like there wasn't really much more areas of growth to be had. And I wasn't really learning, which is something that's really important to me, and often just kept getting increasingly more and more and more expensive each and every year. And my pay did not keep up with it. So, kind of got to a point where I was like, "Hmm, I need to start looking for something else." So, this current position that I'm in as the dietitian for Austin ISD came open, and I applied for it and was interviewed. And I think, you know, I had a little bit of experience in school nutrition, I think the fact that I was a classroom teacher gave me a little bit of an upper hand, because I did, you know, I think that gives me a unique, some unique experiences and a unique outlook and on school nutrition and the importance of it, in general, and our directors are very progressive. And, you know, we see eye-to-eye on things like, you know, nutrition and the food system and things like that. So, I think that's kind of why I was hired for this position.


Dalia  8:41 

Can you elaborate on how your experience as a teacher informs the way you operate inside the nutrition program? Or what are some things you are aware of that you can tell people who don't have the same background don't totally understand?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  8:58 

Sure, I think a couple of things. One is like just the culture of public schools and understanding that culture, how it works with teachers, and with students, and with parents, and with administrators and all that stuff. I lived it for six years, every single day. So, I understand that part of it. And I think that's something that's really important. I also, you know, I worked at a title one high school that was, you know, near 90%, free or reduced. You know, I saw just the importance of school nutrition, and the kids having access to good, healthy food and how important that was to them for their learning. It just gave me the insight of actually seeing it day-to-day about how important that is. And, you know, we did breakfast in the Classroom, I was a teacher who actually did Breakfast in the Classroom, too. So, that gives me another perspective, I understand how that works, and the importance of that. And other thing, and I'll see a CFP, I was a coach and coached baseball and you know, we fed meals to the students, you know, prior to practice in the games and things like that. So, like there was, I had a good understanding of how important all of that stuff was for our students, how vital it was and necessary for them for their, you know, not just for their nutritional health and but for their ability to learn and perform on the field. And you know, all of that stuff.


Dalia  10:14 

Right. It sounds like your background is really unique from the culinary arts focus and undergrad to having that experience in the classroom. I haven't come across anyone else who has that combination of skills. So, is there anything that you think- Have you thought about trying to share some of your unique knowledge beyond your district?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  10:39 

Yeah. So, I mean, I have just this year alone, I presented at the School Nutrition Industry Conference that was here in Austin, Texas, about community and students and parents and just community, school community engagement, and the ways, unique ways in which we do that in Austin ISD, as well as I just did a webinar for the School Nutrition Association, which was focused on that.


Dalia  11:04 

Oh, what was that titled?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  11:05 

Schools, Community Engagement and Unique Ways to Engage Your School Community. And so, I believe that webinar is available for free online right now. So, anybody can watch it and listen to it. So, I had a lot of people I couple hundred people that had signed up for it and watched it. So, you know, I think I've done a pretty good job. And I always have somebody who reaches out to me for questions and stuff like that. I'm always open to, you know, answering any questions and being as helpful as possible, because I know how important that can be.


Dalia  11:39 

Yeah, that's awesome. And I'm sure everybody appreciates that. And like you said, this is a very collaborative community. So, it's just excellent to see that people take out the time to share what they know, for the benefit of the entire field. How would you describe your typical day, your district right now, what's under your umbrella?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  12:01 

Depends on the day. So, I'm not a dietician. So, I'm the menu planner. So, I plan all the menus that, you know, breakfast, lunch, snack program, CACFP, all the specialized menus and things like that, that we do. And I work with the chef team to develop those menus, as well, as you know, make sure they meet all the federal- federal nutrition guidelines as far as components and saturated fat, sodium and all of that. And then I handle a lot of special diets in the district and create menus for those or provide guidance to our managers so that they can meet the needs of all of our students. I do a lot of, you know, school engagement type stuff. And I run our diced and sliced student culinary competition program that we do in the districts and work with our production team and our chef team to put that together. And then I run the dietetic interns that come in, we get a lot of dietetic interns from, from University of Texas, Texas State University and elsewhere, I could probably go on for a while, I have a lot of a lot of hats to wear in the district. So, those are kind of the main thing, but you know, a lot of training with our managers and support for our managers and some recipe development, stuff like that, as well.


Dalia  13:13 

So, how would you describe your district? Like, what is the average daily amount of students that are participating, and what's the demographic like?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  13:24 

So, Austin has about 81,000 students and Austin's kind of a interesting, unique place, it's, you know, getting more and more expensive with each and every day, seemingly, and a lot of our lower income families can't afford to live here anymore. So, they're moving out. So, we're just kind of seeing a decrease in our enrollment, about 1000 students per year, based upon that. And then because of that, it's our low income students are leaving. So, our free and reduced population is the one mostly affected by that, or our free reduced percentage is going down this year was 57%. And that, and so we feed I believe, end of the year was about 51 to 52%, at lunch, and about 33% at breakfast each this year. Yeah, of course, for the district's on the education side. And for us, you know, I mean, you know, not having a firm gauge of how many students we're going to lose each year, and how much of our free and reduced population is going to decrease? You know, each year, it's tough to plan, you know, in advance for that, that stuff. So, we just kind of have to do it. So it's certainly a challenge, amongst the other, you know, multitudes of challenges that you have creating a budget for a school nutrition program these days.


Dalia  14:43 

You also talked about community engagement, kind of being one of your specialties. With the demographics changing, and the school districts, like how have you tried to keep the community engaged and interested in the program, even if it's something that they thought they didn't need? How do you keep the program in front of your community?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  15:05 

Uh certainly, I mean, we utilize all the social media, things with Twitter, and Facebook, Instagram, and stuff like that. So, we're pretty active on that. We have a marketing specialist who handles most of that, and then, you know, I, myself and our chef team will try to get in front of the students, as much as possible. We did a pretty big push for that this year, and get in front of the, like, staff and teachers, administrators, and the parents, as much as possible, and just like the general community, and sort of let them know, all the things that are that are happening, I think, you know, particularly with the parents and breaking that preconceived notion that they have about what school food is like, and is really, really important, because they, a lot of times won't, you know, send their kids or even consider having them eat school lunch, because they think it's unhealthy, or, you know, we use terrible ingredients, it's, it's not good food, and the kids aren't going to like it or eat it and stuff like that. So, there's just a lot of those preconceived notions, I was a school lunch kid growing up, and I ate school lunch every day. So, and I remember the quality of the food, when I was a kid, I still ate it, because I didn't really have any other choice, but it wasn't good. It was all heat and serve and all, you know, stuff like that. You know, times are changing, as you know, and a lot of districts, particularly us, are moving up, you know, scratch cooking and, and, you know, global flavors and, and putting fun and creative and innovative things on our menus for the kids to try each day. So, you know, I think just getting the parents and teachers and even the students themselves an understanding of all the great things that you're doing, I think it's really, it's really important and, and you can put stuff on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram as many times but getting in front of their faces and talking to them and hearing some of their concerns and answering their questions and doing all that stuff. And showing that you care about their input is really, really something that's, that's incredibly vital and incredibly important.


Dalia  17:01 

So, what are some of the programs that you've used? You already mentioned Dice and Slice. So that's an opportunity to get in front of the students with the chef, right? So, what are some things you've done? How do you reach the parents?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  17:14 

So, we reach out and we go, you know, district wide and lead, we have principal coffee meetings in the morning, which I'm sure school districts, most school districts have something like this, where the principals once a month will meet with parents and let them know things that are going on in their school. So, sometimes we'll go to those and we'll let them know that we're available to, to present at those types of things, PTA meetings, as well. Any sort of district-wide event where you know, there's going to be community there is something that will go to set up a booth, bring some food, some samples of some of our menu items, and things like that, and sample them out to parents and you know, just give them some information about what's going on. So, really, anyway, it's kind of a multi-faceted approach. And I don't think there's really one that's been better than the others. But, I think getting in front of PTA, as well are really important too, because those are generally the parents that are most actively involved in their school community and can kind of share that information with the rest of the parents.


Dalia  18:14 

Oh, that makes sense. Have you received any negative feedback that was difficult to manage in the moment or has it overall been you're there as an authority you you're sharing information?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  18:28 

Always negative feedback. And I think it's a lot of times, you know, you know, a lot of times, it's just, it's from parents who have never been in the cafeteria, who are just hearing things from their kids every day, who don't know what's going on and, and have that preconceived notion. So, at the beginning of our presentation, you know, it's generally a lot of the questions and the attitudes can be a little bit negative. But over time, when we explain all the things that we're doing, we're doing a lot of really good progressive things in Austin. So it's, you know, it's by the end of that, and, and, and sharing with them all the amazing things that we're doing, you know, there's generally that negativity turns really to, to positivity really quickly, once you get in front of their, in front of their face and answer their questions and take their, you know, their feedback, and understand where their criticism comes from. And, you know, try to change those, those beliefs that they may have.


Dalia  19:29 

And you say you guys are doing a lot of innovative things that you guys are really proud of, and awesome, what are some of your programs or projects that you have going?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  19:37 

Sure, I think the big, the big thing is food access, particularly to those, you know, economically disadvantaged students. So, we're using every available resource that we can to make sure that we're providing good quality, healthy, tasty meals to those students every day. And, you know, we do that through the programs that are available to us like Breakfast in the Classroom is something that's been really vital to us. So, we have 52 schools this year that did Breakfast in the Classroom; we had 11 new sites for Breakfast in the Classroom open up this year. So, that's been a really big push for us. We increased our CEP sites this year, which is Community Eligibility Provision. That means every student gets free breakfast and lunch each day. And that went from 15 to 43 schools. And I think next year, we'll have about 85 schools that will be CEP, which will be more than half of our student body will be able to give free breakfast and lunch each day, which is pretty amazing. We've been focusing a lot on our after school programs, providing the best quality food that we can for a snack and CACFP. We have a clean label initiative, we're working with the Lifetime Foundation. And so they gave us a very large grant to be able to move into a clean-label menu. So, we are removing anything that's been shown to be harmful to students as far as their growth development and nutrition, nutritional health, like high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, things like that, bleached flour, you know, all of that kind of stuff, we have a laundry list of things that we do not put on our, we don't purchase food items, or use ingredients that contain any of those things. So, I think we're at about 97% clean label right now and will hopefully be at 100% or very close to it next year. It's been a three-year process to do that. And then we have salad bars. Now, in every one of our schools, we offer as much local fruits and vegetables and other products as possible, we really, really like to support our local farmers. And, you know, local businesses as much as possible. We participate with a Good Food Purchasing Program. And we're, I think, the largest school district in Texas that does that, it's a sort of a guideline of purchasing food so that it's nutritionally sound, environmentally sustainable, that we're supporting, you know, human and animal welfare and things like that. So, it's really a bunch of guidelines that we have to follow for that. So, lots of things, we've got a lot going on in Austin. And you know, it's really with a goal with a goal of providing the best quality, healthiest and tastiest food to our kids each day so that they can learn in the classroom, grow and develop them and all of that stuff. And so we're, you know, in doing so, you know, we've purchased millions and millions of dollars of food and goods and products every year that we're doing it in a way that's environmentally sustainable, as well. So, you know, we were all we, we do composting, in all of our cafeterias, all of our cafeterias are either using reusable trays, or if they don't have a dish machine are using compostable trays, all compostable serving containers, we do compostable utensils, all of that stuff. So, you know, it's-


Dalia  22:58 

Now, I think you may have greater buying power, than some districts because of your size, but was is there an initial challenge finding out how to make that work money-wise? Or is that not as expensive as I'm imagining? To have compostable?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  23:14 

Sure, yeah. Yeah, everything that we're doing, I can't remember the price difference between the Styrofoam and the compostable trays. It's significant. So it's, you know, there's, it's certainly a monetary challenge, it's just like, I always say that if you decide to shop at Whole Foods, instead of your regular grocery store, your grocery bills are gonna go up, right?


Dalia  23:34 



Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  23:35 

So, you're buying better quality ingredients, more local produce, clean label stuff, the best quality, you know, meats and stuff that you can, putting more fresh produce on your menus, it's gonna, it's going to bring your food costs up, there's no doubt about it. So, you kind of have to just make that balance and watch very closely with your food costs and your labor cost and, and make sure you're serving enough meals to overcome some of those things.


Dalia  24:00 

Right? So, what was it like promoting engagement for the salad bar in elementary schools? Speaking of making sure you serve enough meals every day, was that a challenge? Or were the kids into it from the start?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  24:16 

I think there's a lot of pushback, at first, I think of from our managers, particularly, you know, getting them on board with what we're doing has been, has been a challenge, as well. And just from the school community, as well, kids aren't going to eat that, they don't like salad, they don't like vegetables, they don't like this, you know, so Austin's a really challenging place, because we have like, it's really split down the middle. We have one half of the city that, you know, wants us and this is I'm generalizing here, this is not everybody, but it seems like this is the complaints that I get most frequently is one part of the city, you know, telling us, you know, my kids not going to eat, that just serve them chicken tenders and pizza every day, because that's what they want to eat. And then the other half of the city wants us to make everything gluten-free, and paleo and, and, you know, all of that stuff, and clean label and, and vegan and all that. So, it's kind of a challenge in that sense. You know, to meet the needs of both of those types of populations, and then everybody kind of in the middle as well, you know, that's been a little bit of a challenge. So we, when we rolled out the salad bars, we make sure equity is something that's really important to us, we want to make sure that every school, every elementary school, every middle, every high school, all the schools get the same quality of food, get the same menus, and every kid has the same access to the good quality food each and every day. Started the salad bars, and we rolled them out slowly, you know, one school at a time. And we did it kind of in a way that was celebratory and we had like a red carpet that the kids walked on to go through the line to get their salads and stuff like that, sort of made it like a celebratory day. And I think that initial like excitement about it kind of pushed the kids to, you know, to be more likely to partake in salads. So, we do pretty well. I don't remember the only hit we have the numbers for this year. But, I think last year, we're near like a half a million salads that we sold across the district, which is which is great at all levels. So, you know, we haven't really done some significant research to see how much of its eaten, but from anecdotal data that kids are eating it and, and, and taking it and we are seeing at middle and high school, particularly some increase each year with them having, you know, access to that, those salads each day. You know, and all the fresh vegetables that are available to them with their participation in that, in their take, the take rates of those things are going up. So it's like a, you know, I think it's, to me nutrition in general is all about, especially for kids, is about exposure and about access. They see it every day, they have access to it every day, you know, eventually they're going to start to understand that that's something that they understand as a food item that they like to eat and, and, and it's going to increase their intake of vegetables and fruits and things like that and kind of slowly but surely change their eating habits and their plan. So...


Dalia  27:18 

Since change is gradual, like how long do you think in general it takes to see a shift? Like, if we're talking about one child, how long before you just give up on offering a kid something? I think sometimes people give up too quickly.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  27:35 

Yeah, that's for sure. I hear that from, you know, the nutrition education with parents and when I worked at WIC and things like "Oh, he won't eat any of that." "Okay, well, how many times did you offer it to him?" "Oh, one time he wouldn't touch it." But well, the research is pretty clear on that, that for most kids, it takes like a dozen or more times, some research says 15 to 20 times exposing a child to something new for them. And that it's a food item that they know and that they liked, you know that they like to eat, you just have to continue to offer them things like that, if you give up, you know that, that's not going to change their eating habits.


Dalia  28:12 

Right? Exactly. I think it's really important to remember that it's not going to happen overnight. And sometimes you have to introduce things in different form. So, just because somebody didn't like a rock carrot doesn't mean they don't like cooked carrots, doesn't mean they don't like them spiraled. You know, you have to really put some options out there.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  28:33 



Dalia  28:33 

So, can you tell me more about your sustainability initiatives when it comes to local produce? How are you able to buy locally, when your district is so large?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  28:46 

So, we have a really great food community in Austin. So, I think that's really helpful, you know, it's one of America's greatest food towns and people that are just really big advocates for what we're doing and, and willing to be partners with us, particularly our local farms. We have a great farm in Austin called Johnson's Backyard Garden that we partner with and they are in you know, a an urban farm, very, quite large, they grow lots of produce, and they, they sell to us and we, you know, will do things like Farm Fresh Friday Initiative with them, where we'll put an item on the menus on Fridays from them we'll, you know, purchase stuff from them not generally just to put on the menu, but just to sample out with kids. So, we've done things like radishes, we've done beans, we've done you know, a lot of different, new and interesting things to kind of offer the kids different flavors and things like that maybe that they've never exposed to with just like a bonus, you know, tasting, to get them to do that when you know. I think that's a great way for smaller districts to do is you don't have to buy enough to serve all the kids, you could buy a little bit just to sample it out with the kids and expose them to new and exciting flavors and different vegetables and stuff like that. I think that's the kids love that. It's really, it's really great. When we do stuff like that we kind of offer them something that they've never had before and just a setting of like sampling it out to them and getting them to taste it. I've been really amazed and, and surprised even with like how great of feedback we've gotten from the kids and stuff like that what they're willing to actually eat. Kids generally, I find are much more exploratory with their palates, if you give them a chance, than most adults.


Dalia  30:27 

Right, so I would imagine that framing it as it's just that, it's just a taste like you don't have to eat a whole vegetable serving that I give you would kind of lessen the pressure a little bit, make them a little open to try a bite of something.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  30:42 

Completely. Yes. Yeah, it's- it's a it's just a really great opportunity to expose them to this stuff. And then we you know, we utilize any possible way of getting local produce as possible through all the you know, federal programs and state programs. Texas Department of Agriculture is really who oversees school nutrition programs in Texas, is really, really focused on getting school districts to purchase from local farms. So, they've been a really great partner with us, as well, and promoting programs for us to be able to purchase local fruits and vegetables and things like that from local farms, because they want us just as much as we want to support our local farmers right here in Texas.


Dalia  31:21 

And with our being so much going on, how have you been able to use your interns effectively? What types of assignments or projects do you put them on? I'm sure there's like a learning curve when they come in? How do you get them up to speed quickly and really make them an asset to the program?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  31:36 

And you know, I'm pretty not- surprised, it's not the right word. But I think the schools here, yeah, University of Texas and Texas State and some of the other programs, secondarily, have done a really good job of educating their students and preparing them for internships. And so, I think they come in with a pretty, you know, decent knowledge base, and understanding of how at least the meal pattern and stuff like that works. So, they do have a pretty solid background there. And then, again, I think nutrition programs are doing a little bit better of a job now of exposing students to cooking and culinary arts and, and food in general, as opposed to just focusing on Science, Science, Science, Science, which is really important for a dietitian, but if you don't know anything about food, it's going to be very difficult for you to be successful, even in a clinical environment. So, I think that's, that movement, which seems to be nationwide slowly, but but surely has been really important as well. So, you know, most of most of the time, when the interns come in, they have their preset assignments that they have to do from their internship, so I will give some data and some guidance, and maybe, you know, have them do something that will be beneficial to us, like if they're doing a plate waste study. “Okay, here's something that I'm curious, the kids, I know they're taking it, but are they eating it, can you do a play study on this?" If they're going to create a recipe and sample it out to the students. "Okay, well, here's something that I was interested in trying. So, maybe, can you go in this direction," or, you know, just kind of give them a little bit of a guidance, but I like to give them some free range and do something that they're passionate about. And that they're excited about doing. I don't want to force them to do additional work that they're not excited about, you know?


Dalia  33:23 

That makes sense. That's very generous. So, it seems like people yeah, they don't really care about the students experience, and they just focus on their To Do List whether or not it's something the kid is, or the student, I guess, is going to get a lot out of, so that's probably a lot better approach that way. It's really mutually beneficial. So, sweet.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  33:46 

Yeah, I mean, I remember, it's been a long time since I've been in my internship. But one of the things that I liked about my internship at Keene State College was they gave you a lot of free rein on where you wanted to complete all of your hours and things like that, and what kind of projects that you wanted to do, and things like that. And so I really had an enjoyable experience, because I got to do a lot of stuff with food and cooking and working with kids and stuff like that. So, you know, so I just, I think it's really important to, that's what internships are about is getting exposure to you know, future dieticians so that they, you know, get a understanding of where it is that they will head in their career. So, you know, and I'm a big proponent of school nutrition, I think it's a really great place to work, you know, there's, as a public health standpoint, there's really no better place to do that, you know, unless you're working for like, some huge, USA ID or, you know, something like that, or USDA or something like that, you know, even then, you know, I'm making the decision, generally about the, what, 80,000 students are getting offered for breakfast, lunch, and after school programs every single day. There's really not much of a bigger way to make an impact and the nutritional health of, you know, the community and the, in the country. And, and, and, and those individual kids in general. So, I like to just, you know, give them an understanding that that's a career that they should consider, you know, everybody thinks clinical, clinical clinical as they're going through their internship, but there are so many opportunities for dietitians out there. And school nutrition, I think is one where they don't really consider that but one, I think it's a great place because you do get paid, generally, pretty well. You do have generally have good benefits, you get lots of time off, generally. And then just really in general, it's a it's a, it can be a really great work environment. So, and there's a lot of benefits to it that you won't find in other, you're not going to be working on New Year's Eve.


Dalia  35:39 



Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  35:39 

You know, not going to be working on Christmas.


Dalia  35:42 

Well, unless a storm or something crazy, which loves to happen when you're at home relaxing. Yeah. It really seems like overall, it's not on anyone's radar during the program, when you're doing your undergrad seems like food service is kind of pushed aside, like you said, clinical is really the focus. And I think that's why there isn't much pushback from the students when there isn't enough of an emphasis on culinary. And it isn't until you enter the workforce and you're giving someone all this advice about how to manage their new diagnosis that has nutrition implications. And they start asking you practical questions about how do I actually do this? And you're like, "Oh, I don't know, I don't." It's a problem.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  36:32 

Yeah, I remember when I did my internship, I had, obviously a culinary degree and like experience working in kitchens. I think there was 20 of us in my internship and I, we did some labs about cooking and things like, I was just amazed at how many of them didn't know how to chop an onion or sauté, or just do basic stuff, or even know how some of the equipment in the kitchen worked. It was, I've seen a lot of improvements of that over the years. But, you know, I think there just needs to be more of a focus on that, generally in, in nutrition programs, undergrad and, and masters programs, even, you know, that's so important that that knowledge base needs to be there. If you can't, you can tell somebody all you want about what it is they have to eat. But if you can't, you know, show them the tools and give them the tools and techniques and things like that, and you don't know how to do any of that stuff yourself. It's very difficult. So...


Dalia  37:26 

Yeah, and it's interesting, because I think now more than ever, the US population is losing those skills or doesn't have those skills, anymore. So, maybe you could have advice, like if you're giving advice to somebody in their 60s, they probably you know, the wheels are turning and they're thinking about the things they could change and how they cook. But if you're talking to someone in their 40s and below, they're probably going to need more information from you, because people come from households where both parents are working. So, you probably didn't have an opportunity to cook in the kitchen with your parents. Maybe the generation before did. There's just a lot of gaps with culinary knowledge. So, you would think the food experts would be able to address that. So, it's good to see that those gaps are being closed. And I think you're lucky if you didn't get that and you end up in school nutrition, because that's a good place to build those skills.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  38:21 

Yeah, sure. Sure.


Dalia  38:22 

Well, thank you so much for coming back on. I apologize again, for my technical snafu. And, you mentioned-


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  38:29 

No problem, it happens.


Dalia  38:31 

You mentioned one other thing I wanted to touch on, you said, when you left teaching, you were really interested and making sure you're in a position where you could continue to grow or continue to learn and it just sounded like that indicates you have a growth mindset. And there's a lot of research that shows people who think that way, you know, tend to innovate more, tend to take more risks. Can you see where being interested in growing and seeing things as a learning experience has been beneficial for you?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  39:01 

Yeah, I think, you know, anytime you move in sort of like a newish kind of career and a new role, you know, just, you know, there's always so much to learn, and so many areas of growth to be had, you know. I think school nutrition, there's so much there as far as, like the regulations and, and, you know, just child nutrition, in general. And, and there's just so much to learn about, and so many areas of growth to be had and budgets and finances and food costs and labor costs. And you know, it goes on and on, and learning about all that stuff so you can be as successful as possible in your position, you know, I think are really important and to grow, and maybe eventually move up to a, you know, a director position or something like that, or, you know, any of the other areas that are available in school nutrition. But I think there's just now there's a never ending sort of areas of growth to be had in school nutrition. So, I've always kind of had that growth mindset, I can get really bored at jobs really quickly. And particularly if I'm not, I don't feel like my professional development is not being fostered. And I feel like that's one of the major reasons why I left teaching. And I think that's one of the major reasons why people leave teaching in general. We talked about the financial part of it, you know, I feel like that, that professional development and that growth and development as an educator and things like that are something that's pretty sorely lacking and, and, in schools across the country. And I, that was one of the main reasons. So, yeah, so I mean that you just have to kind of reach out what it is that you're interested in learning. There are always opportunities, School Nutrition Association has some great stuff. Institute of Child Nutrition has some great stuff, you know, you can earn additional certifications, like as a school nutrition specialist through SNA, there are, you know, there's a lot of opportunities for growth, and even the best school nutrition directors and even the best school dieticians and whatever it may be always, there's always something in some way that they can improve, whether it's through the leadership or management part of things, the financial part of things, food costs, labor costs, any of that stuff. I mean, there's always, always somewhere to, you know, somewhere to reach for additional information and ways that you can improve yourself.


Dalia  41:21 

Right. I think that's definitely true. That's why I really appreciate people sharing the areas that they're strong and sharing their information with everybody else so we can all get better as a group.


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  41:32 

Yeah, and I think school nutrition is a great place, and I say this a lot is that, we're not competing against one another. We're not like Arby's and Wendy's or whatever. And we don't want to share information to make those businesses better. We're all focused on the same goals. We're not competing with, you know, we have our kids, they're there, they're not moving from one district to another based upon the food quality in the district.


Dalia  41:54 



Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  41:55 

No, they're your kids, they're there. So, if you're doing something that's working, why not share that with other districts or other you know, entities so that they can be successful, as well. There's no reason to recreate the wheel ever, because there's probably somebody out there who's doing what it is that you want to do and probably doing it well. So, you can kind of take that, you know, information and, and utilize it as best you can.


Dalia  42:19 

Absolutely thank you for sharing all of that. Where can we find you online? Or where can we find what your district is up to?


Ryan Cengel MS, MA, RDN, LD, CPT, SNS  42:27 

So, we are on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram at Austin ISD Food, Austin ISD Food Services. So, you can follow us there. Anybody that's interested in learning more about what we're doing or has any questions or needs some guidance, I'm always available. You can you can shoot me an email, my email addresses And feel free to send me an email if you, if you're curious about how we're doing something, you see a menu item on one our Facebook posts or something like that, that you're curious about or you know, you want to do something along the lines of what we're doing, and you want to know how best to do that in your district or whatever, whatever it is, or you just need some insights. You know, I'm always available and willing, willing to share, so feel free to reach out to me anytime.


Dalia  43:17 

Perfect. Thanks so much, Ryan. Of course.


Dalia  43:21 

As you may have already gathered, Ryan completed this interview with me twice. It was early days with my recording. I still really couldn't tell you what happened to the first recording, but it is God. And I just appreciate his patience and coming on twice. Both interviews were really great. I can't even really say which one was my favorite but doesn't matter because we only have this one. So, this is the one we get. That said, I really appreciate him sharing his unique journey into school nutrition. It isn't every day you come across someone who has worked within school districts as both an educator and a dietitian. So, it was really interesting to hear how that has affected his understanding of our role in school nutrition and its impact on student academic performance. I hope you got as much out of this episode as I did. Don't worry if you didn't get notes, I have taken notes for you. All you have to do is go on over to the website, join the mailing list and I will get those to you. Okay everybody, have a great week!


Theme Song  44:25 

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]