Behind the Scenes in the School Cafeteria

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Episode 79 │ Behind the Scenes in the School Cafeteria

Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024

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Show Notes

Briana Webster Campbell

How can families partner with schools to ensure their children are enjoying nutritious meals? Our hosts talked with Briana Webster Campbell, the managing director of Center for Best Practices at No Kid Hungry to get an inside look into the school cafeteria. Briana shares how schools determine what foods to serve, how families can get more involved and why your child’s cinnamon roll may be healthier than you think!


  • Learn more about No Kid Hungry and explore their tools and webinars. 
  • Share Our Strength School Meal Finder: Text FOOD to 304-304 to find food sites near you! 

Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Kisha: Welcome back to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm Kisha DeSandies Lester.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, and we are your co-hosts.

Kisha: Hi, Helen.

Helen: Hi, Kisha.

Kisha: Today, we're talking about school nutrition. We send our kids off to school every day. And if we don't already pack their lunches, do we really know what they're eating?

Helen: Very true, Kisha. And of course school meals have even bigger implications for students whose families are hungry. For many kids, school meals provide a lot or all of the essential vitamins and nutrients they need in a day. So today, we're going to take a look behind the scenes into the school cafeteria.

Kisha: This is going to be good, Helen, and we're so glad to have Briana Webster Campbell, the Managing Director at Share Our Strength, where she oversees the Center for Best Practices for the No Kid Hungry Initiative. She and her team serve as a resource on federal nutrition programs like School Breakfast, Summer Meals, and SNAP.

Before joining No Kid Hungry, Briana also worked on school health initiatives at Health Corps and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Briana is the mom of a four- and six-year-old, two boys, and she currently serves as the parent representative at their school's wellness council. That's really cool. Welcome, Briana.

Briana Webster Campbell: Thank you so much. I'm so glad to be here today.

Kisha: We're so happy to have you here. Can you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself and what led you to focus your career on child nutrition?

Briana Webster Campbell: Absolutely. So, I've been at Share Our Strength for a little over 7 years now, and I've worked in the public health field for over 20. In terms of what led me to focus on child nutrition specifically, I would say that there's really been a common theme in my work over the last two decades, and that's been health disparities amongst communities of color.

I grew up in North Carolina to parents from rural areas. Actually, both of them grew up on farms, and food has always been really important and central to our family. My mom tells a story about how if you would have gone to their pantry on any given day, it would be really bare. But by the time dinner rolled around, her mom would have made a full spread of food, and my mom comes from a family of 15 siblings, so you can imagine lots of people in the home at dinner time. She would say at least 20 people every single day.

And they were able to do that because they did live on a farm, and she said her mom would just go outside, grab a chicken, go pick some vegetables, and they'd have this great nutritious meal. But at the same time, I saw many chronic health conditions on both sides of my family. We have family members who suffered from colon cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure. And I know it's not unique to my family. I know it's very common, especially for African Americans in this country.

And I went to UNC School of Public Health in Chapel Hill, and that's where I really became even more aware about these issues. And then once I moved to DC, I worked on a diabetes awareness program and for the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association's Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

And what I began noticing was that so many of the issues that face communities, it was because of a lack of access to healthy, nutritious foods. And so whether it be diabetes or obesity and high blood pressure, all of these things were really interconnected. I realized that a way for me to help reverse these very troubling trends that we were seeing is to work for an organization that is addressing hunger and one that is starting with our youth. And so that's how, I really got here to Share Our Strength. And as you mentioned earlier, a thing that makes this work even closer to my heart is the fact that I'm a mom of two young boys and two kids who really love their school breakfast and school lunch. And I'm just excited to be here today and to speak on this topic.

Helen: Oh, we are so excited to have you. I don't know about you, but Kisha, but I have like a million questions for you. So, I'm also the mom of a kindergartner. So we are also experiencing the school cafeteria for the first time. And you mentioned access, really being an issue causing a lot of the inequities that we see in our communities. Backing up from that a little bit, like...

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah.

Helen: How do school cafeterias even decide what to put on the menu? Like,

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah.

Helen: Do they have enough money to put what they need on the menu? How do they decide?

Briana Webster Campbell: That's a really great question. So, I don't know if many parents know this, but schools have to follow really rigorous standards that are set by the federal government to guarantee that these meals are nutritious. And it's actually the same standards that the USDA recommends for all Americans. And the guidelines that they follow include a balance of fruits and vegetables, milk, whole grains, and lean protein. And, when they're formulating these standards, they listen to a wide group of individuals, including parents and teachers and school nutrition professionals and other experts. So they really are getting that feedback.

And so while we know that the food the students are receiving at school is nutritious, at Share Our Strength, we really want to make sure that all of them have access to that food. A recent report from the USDA shows that one in five kids or about 13 million kids in this country are living with hunger. And that's a crisis, you know, it really is a crisis, but schools can play a really important role to ensure that kids are getting the foods they need.

Kisha: Yes. And you mentioned breakfast. I have two young children, an almost three-year-old and almost eight-year-old, and breakfast is so hard. What are some innovative, innovative ways schools are providing healthy and nutritious foods to kids?

Briana Webster Campbell: So we have seen lots of different innovations coming out of schools across the country. We've seen some schools that have opened food pantries for families to have nutritious food at home. Other districts include opportunities for students to learn and get more engaged in the meal process by giving them taste testing opportunities or having them help incorporate culturally appropriate foods.

Many schools are doing school gardens, and the list goes on. Actually, we know of a district down in Georgia that hires students to help pack and load boxes for their bus route delivery for summer meals program. And so it's a way for the students to be directly involved doing something good for their fellow classmates and getting paid for it at the same time. I also want to share that personally, I got involved in the school meal taste test at my kids school. An they really wanted families to weigh in on who would be our next food vendor. And I just got a lot of enjoyment and fulfillment out of that opportunity to know that I too was helping to shape the foods that my boys were going to eat at school.

Kisha: That's amazing.

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah.

Helen: I know. I'm like, I haven't gotten that invitation. I want that invitation.

Briana Webster Campbell: You know, it doesn't happen all the time. It doesn't happen all the time. But I think that, if your school does have a school wellness council, that is a great way to try to get involved as a parent.

Helen: I'm curious. You mentioned that schools have to follow these federal regulations about providing nutritious meals. It seems to me that sometimes the actuality of that is kids don't eat those meals, right? Either because the school isn't providing what they're supposed to be providing, or the way that they're providing it, kids might be, so I can speak for my child, right, like she’ll have $2 on her lunch account. She could just get chocolate milk in the lunch line. She doesn't actually have to get the full nutritious meal. So, what advice do you have for parents and schools about how to handle that or what to do if families are worried that their kids aren't actually getting the access to those meals that their children are supposed to be receiving?

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah, when a student goes through that lunch line, and if they're getting that full reimbursable meal, they have to choose that whole meal. They may have options, their cafeteria staff member may say, "Do you want this or that?" But in terms of all of those requirements that I mentioned earlier, they have to do that. I know that some parents are able to put money on an account, and students can choose what we call a la carte items. And that's where they could say, "Oh, I want just this chocolate milk”, but if they're going through that traditional lunch line they actually have to get that meal and it is really well balanced. And I want you know, I have heard from some other parents, just even in my personal life, they're like, "I see what my kid gets and they're eating a cinnamon roll for breakfast" and I say to them, "It's not actually the same cinnamon roll that you or I could go buy in the grocery store".

If you were to look at the food label on those items that your students are eating, it is very different. So it may look like that cinnamon roll, but it's likely whole grain. It's likely it has less sugar than what you'd be buying at the grocery store. So, it is actually different and it is much healthier than you may think.

Kisha: That's a really good point because sometimes I do look at the lunches and I'm like, wait a minute. What is this? But if I look at the menu, I see that it is a little different.

Briana Webster Campbell: Right. Yeah. And I think again, having that student buy in and having the students help to shape what that meal looks like at their school is such a great way to have it possibly change. But it, it takes all of us really helping and supporting the school nutrition staff to make it happen.

Helen: Yeah.

Kisha: Absolutely. I mean, I, I make sure I look at the menu because I'm still needing breakfast options for my kids.

Briana Webster Campbell: I understand.

Kisha: I look at what they're eating for breakfast and trying to replicate that at home, but we know that families don't always have that same access to nutritious foods. They think a cinnamon roll is a cinnamon roll, like you said.

Briana Webster Campbell: Right.

Kisha: And it's especially important that we provide these to the children who are in families where they don't have that access. So, could you go through what food insecure is? We hear it thrown around a lot. What is it and how are schools handling that locally?

Briana Webster Campbell: Sure. Yeah. I mean, so basically it's what it sounds like. It means that, in our case, we say at Share Our Strength, that we want all of our kids across the country to have 3 meals a day, 365 days a year. We don’t want our students to only be having breakfast or just lunch and we also say that summer sometimes is the hungriest time of the year because those students that are relying on that school meal aren’t in the school building many times in the summer. So I really, I do want to talk about what is happening and what schools are doing to try to alleviate food insecurity.

So schools are really a reliable source of nutrition for families. They are providing meals during the school year, and many are providing it in the summertime. To help schools and other summer meal sites reach more kids. We at Share Our Strength actually sponsor a school meal finder phone number that families can use to find food nearby. They just have to text the word FOOD or COMIDA to 304-304, and they can see all of the different food sites around them.

And there are several ways that the federal nutrition programs focus on reaching those most in need. For example, families can qualify for free and reduced price meals based on their household income. And there are options that allow qualifying schools and districts to offer meals at no cost for all students. For example, my kids are getting free breakfast. The entire school gets free breakfast. I'm not paying for that.

Helen: That's awesome.

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah. And so we're also seeing more states implement legislation to offer school meals at no cost to all kids, helping to improve access by removing that barrier of cost. Programs like free and reduced price meals. They already exist and they provide meals to students whose families might not be able to afford it. But we know that there's still room to improve. And expand these programs. And we've really been working hard alongside lawmakers across the country to make that happen.

For example, we recently supported a measure in Texas that expanded free breakfast to an additional 70, 000 students, which is an amazing accomplishment. Yeah, we're really excited about that, but we know that there's still a lot more that we can all be doing.

I also want to talk about SNAP. Schools can really help families sign up for grocery benefits through SNAP, and SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And it's one of the most powerful tools to fight hunger, but many families don't even know that it's an option or they don't realize that they qualify for it. So, having these resources available at the school where parents already trust where they go every day can really help get it to the families that need it the most.

Helen: That is so important, and thank you for doing that advocacy.

Helen: I want to follow up a little bit on this question of access because you've talked about the initial provision, right, like of making it available. And then there's the uptake, of what is actually made available. Do families know and do they complete those forms? Do kids go through the line? I’m thinking of it because I was really struck by your response about the, you know, $2 on the kid's card in the lunch line of, if there's stigma that is preventing this.

Is that even true? Is that sort of shame or stigma part of it? And just the process seems hard to follow itself. So, curious about that from an access perspective, too.

Briana Webster Campbell: Yeah. Stigma is definitely an issue. And one of the things that we're trying to do is encourage Breakfast After the Bell as one solution to this. And Breakfast After the Bell is what it sounds like. It is a way for students who may be a little bit late because the bus is running late or getting dropped off, so that they will have access to that school breakfast in their classroom or in different parts of the school. And so that way it removes stigma.

We do know that there are times when if you have breakfast all in the cafeteria, and if students, I'm thinking, especially on that middle school and high school level where they're not so nice sometimes. If they see certain students walking into that cafeteria, they may say, "Oh, those are the low-income students" or "they don't have money".

Things like Breakfast After the Bell will help make it the norm, so that all students are sitting around eating together, chatting with their friends. And it levels that playing feel so that no one feels like they are being, you know, talked about or excluded. Everybody's there together enjoying a meal around the table, just like you or I would do for dinner at night.

Helen: I love that. And I'm like, I want my kid to get the same thing in the lunch line as everybody else.

Briana Webster Campbell: I know.

Helen: She doesn't need it. Why would you do two separate things for two groups of kids, that doesn't sit right, quite frankly to me.

Briana Webster Campbell: No, it's not.

Kisha: Briana, you coming here, I think has really enlightened some parents who may not know the power of their voice at their own school. You sit on a council where you can do taste testing and really helped with the decision process. How can other parents navigate those waters to do that in their own school?

Briana Webster Campbell: Absolutely. Honestly, the best thing that parents can do is to have their students participate, and for them to encourage other parents to do the same. Like I've been saying this whole call, school meals are available for all students. They're healthy, they're affordable and convenient, especially for busy parents like us.

Helen: Yeah.

Briana Webster Campbell: When more kids eat school meals, it helps to strengthen the program for kids who need it most. School nutrition departments, they're reimbursed for every qualifying meal that they serve. So, that means the more meals served equals more money invested back into the program. And lastly, it's not necessarily advocacy, but I want parents to really think about their school nutrition staff as vital to the school community as teachers and principals. So, in the same way that we often celebrate and honor our educators, we should do the same for the school nutrition staff who are working on behalf of our kids every single day.

Kisha: I love that. I love that.

Helen: These are folks feeding our little people, right?

Briana Webster Campbell: Absolutely.

Helen: And I cannot imagine that that is an easy job, behind the scenes either.

Briana Webster Campbell: It's definitely not.

Kisha: Thankless.

Helen: You've shared already so much with us today. This has been a great conversation. I feel like the time has blown by.

Briana Webster Campbell: It has.

Helen: It really has. Before we leave, I do want to give you the chance of just emphasizing anything you've already shared or even anything you haven't. If you want families and listeners to today's episode to walk away with something that really sticks with them from the great work that you're doing, Briana, and that Share Our Strength is doing, what would that be?

Briana Webster Campbell: Absolutely. One thing we always try to emphasize that is core to our message is that child hunger is solvable. We know we can get to the point where no kid has to miss a meal or go hungry. And I do know you asked for one thing, but if I could squeeze in more of my thing, I want folks to remember that school meals are for all kids.

Helen: Yeah.

Briana Webster Campbell: And school meals, they play such an important role in making that a reality. And I think it's important to recognize the talent, skill, and ingenuity within the school nutrition departments that make these meals possible. And as a mom of two very active and rambunctious boys who raid my kitchen every day, I feel really confident in knowing that when they enter that school building, they are going to receive a healthy and nutritious breakfast and lunch that will help them focus in school as well as grow.

I just want to leave as well, if any parent wants to learn more about our work or how they can get involved, they can visit our website. And that is simply So no kid hungry dot O-R-G.

Helen: Awesome. Thank you for that. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much.

Briana Webster Campbell: You are very welcome.

Kisha: Well, to our audience listening, thank you for joining us. Thank you, Briana, for joining us as well. For more resources related to today's episode, check out, and thanks for tuning in. Join us next time!