Peanuts in Schools
Jul 24, 2023
PB&Js have been a school lunch staple for generations—and at most schools they still are. The star ingredient, peanut butter, is nutritious, affordable, shelf stable and tasty. But food allergy concerns are a barrier to schools using more peanuts. Tapping into our recent Summer School Nutrition Summit, we’ll discuss the latest trends, what's on the minds of school nutrition leaders and how schools can serve peanuts while keeping students with allergies safe. We’ll hear from Amy Carroll of Lee County, FL Schools whose district brought peanut butter back to the menu after almost 20 years, Marlon Gordon of Nxt Gen Network, child nutrition chef Rebecca Polson, Leslie Wagner of Southern Peanut Growers and Texas peanut grower Lexi Floyd.
PB&Js have been a school lunch staple for generations—and at most schools they still are. Tapping into the National Peanut Board’s recent Summer School Nutrition Summit, we discuss the latest trends and how schools can serve peanuts while keeping students with allergies safe. In this episode of The Peanut Podcast, we hear from Amy Carroll of Lee County, FL Schools, Marlon Gordon of Nxt Gen Network, child nutrition chef Rebecca Polson, Leslie Wagner of Southern Peanut Growers and Texas peanut grower Lexi Floyd.
Bringing Peanut Butter Back to the Menu
Amy Carroll is a registered dietitian with the School District of Lee County in Fort Myers, Florida. When Carroll started in Lee County in 2017, peanuts had been off the district’s menus since 2004. A spark of inspiration came on a visit to a large high school in a nearby county. “They had golf carts at lunch that had [Smuckers] Uncrustables [frozen PB&J] sandwiches, oranges and milk. The students were lined up for these golf carts. I told my director, ‘We're missing lots of customers.’ And she agreed. We said OK, we need to bring peanut butter back. But we immediately knew that we were going to face a lot of push back and we didn't know how to overcome it so, we shelved that idea.”
Then a series of “nightmare” challenges came, including COVID, losing their food distributor, climbing prices, food shortages and more. Carroll recalled, “I thought if we ever want to bring peanut butter back, now's the time. We can present it in such a way that we need to get food for our students and peanut butter is a commodity that's available. And it credits as a meat alternative [in federal child nutrition programs]. I framed it as we need to bring peanut butter back; there's no choice.”
With 84 schools that serve approximately 85,000 meals a day, Carroll and her team knew a standardized and unified approach was necessary. They rallied all the stakeholders including nursing, administration, legal, parents, students, custodial operations and others. Everyone needed to be on board and Carroll had to be prepared with research and information.
She connected with NPB’s Sherry Coleman Collins and “I read every study out there in preparation for this meeting,” said Carroll. “Of our 100,000-student population, 1% is allergic to peanuts, and we have another 4.3% allergic to other things. It didn't make sense for such a high-participation item like peanut butter that we were not serving it because of 1% of our student population. When instead we could figure out how we could serve it safely and provide another item that the students liked.” Carroll credits the Epi Pens for Schools program for helping to stock non-student specific epinephrine as key part of the preparation plan.
“On February 22, 2022, we served peanut butter again for the first time in our district and 18 years,” said Carroll. “And now it's July of 2023 and I'm happy to say that we have not had one negative reaction. Thank goodness. I know it's a possibility. But we have not had any negative reactions and I haven't heard one negative word. All I've heard is thank goodness peanut butter is back.”
What Works in Communication & Marketing for Schools
Communication was a key part of Carroll’s strategy to bring peanut butter back to the menu. Lee County partnered with Marlon Gordon of Nxt Gen Media to create tools and resources to get the word out to the community. Gordon has worked both on the operating and industry side of the food service sector. “We started the business with a product called First Taste TV, which is like Home Shopping Network meets Food Network but geared towards child nutrition professionals. Now we do a ton of videos, podcasts and publications and we work inside and outside of K12.”
School nutrition and communications has changed significantly over the past few years, particularly in social media. “Social media has gotten huge. But even when talking social media, I think video is one of the best ways to engage and is what a lot of districts are now starting to look for,” said Gordon. “Kids are on YouTube all day long. My kids are on YouTube consistently. It drives me crazy, but that's just where they are. And if you're going to market your program, you have to be where the kids are. So, whether you're on YouTube or Vimeo or using social media to promote your brand or your product, video I feel like is a really good way to engage with the audience. And I see a lot more districts doing it.”
Beyond the PB&J: Versatile Ways to Use Peanuts in Schools
Chef Rebecca Polson has nearly 10 years of experience as a chef working in public schools all over the country. She currently is a K-12 culinary trainer and chef consultant working with districts, manufacturers and non-profits to bring culturally relevant, chef-driven healthy meals to schools.
According to Polson, school breakfast is often an overlooked meal opportunity and one with a lot of benefits for peanuts. “I love peanuts at breakfast, especially, as I present all across the country and help people with recipe development and menu planning,” said Polson. “There's a lot of room for growth there and incorporating peanuts is a great way to do that. They have good fat, protein (7 grams) and full of fiber (2 grams). It helps students stay fuller longer up until lunchtime but also peanuts are a student favorite. Incorporating them into breakfast can help increase participation as well. Some of my favorite ways to incorporate peanuts and peanut butter into breakfast are smoothies, as a topping on pancakes or waffles mixed into oatmeal.”
A Peanut Industry Perspective on Schools
Leslie Wagner is executive director of Southern Peanut Growers, which has done regional and state marketing for peanut farmers in the Southeast since 1980. Wagner has been working for peanuts since 1994 and currently works primarily for growers in Georgia and Mississippi.
“In my experience, school nutrition workers are very passionate about how important feeding kids is to those kids’ ultimate success in school,” said Wagner. “We focus on supporting them in that endeavor in a few ways. We work to connect them to specific products that they're looking for. Lately, that's been mostly requests for individual serving size squeeze bags of peanut butter for the portability and ease of use. We also offer promotional kits to help school nutrition provide the education component that they're actually required to provide. But also, to help them create the fun components that they think helps connect the kids to their program.”
Connecting the Grower to School Nutrition
Lexi Floyd and her family live in Texas where they grow both conventional and organic cotton and peanuts. She attended and presented at the Summer School Nutrition Summit. “Going into it, I thought it's going to be hard to convince them why we need peanuts back in schools or why this is important,” said Floyd. “I left there thinking they're our biggest advocates. They're here because they want to help us; they want to do these things. And that's a very important relationship. Just listening to how many millions of kids are being fed in the United States by our school system. If we just keep going the way we're going and we stay with building this relationship, I think that we can only get stronger in terms of getting peanuts back into more schools.”
For more information about serving peanuts in K12, visit PeanutsinSchools.org.