DES MOINES (AP) — On the last day before winter break, students at two Des Moines elementary schools were eagerly awaiting their special hot lunches of pizza and macaroni and cheese.
The truck that normally delivers their meals was preparing to unload at about 11 a.m. when the liftgate broke, stranding the students’ lunches inside.
As soon as Amanda Miller, head of Des Moines Public Schools’ Food and Nutrition Management, heard, she gathered her team and quickly came up with two options:
— They could send pre-made sack lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches immediately. They were frozen, but they’d thaw on the way — hopefully.
— They could delay lunch by less than an hour and prepare hot meals of cheese pizza and mixed veggies.
On a day where the temperature hadn’t hit 40 degrees, the school principals chose the second.
A third option — letting kids wait until an afternoon snack or until they got home — was never on the table. Miller’s team, who churned out more than 800 hot meals in 45 minutes that day, exists to make sure kids get fed — broken liftgate or not.
Miller’s life has been marked by a deep love for both food and education. As the newly minted director of Des Moines’ school lunch program, the 38-year-old’s two passions help her lead a team that is serving students better by offering healthy choices, catering to the changing tastes of Des Moines families and maintaining fiscal responsibility.
For the district, food is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Kids simply aren’t hungry to learn when they are physically hungry, Miller said.
Superintendent Tom Ahart agreed, adding that food insecurity and poverty “negatively impact the educational process in a variety of ways.” Simply feeding kids “doesn’t solve the problem, but it certainly lessens the impact,” he said.
DMPS serves about 15,000 breakfasts, 22,000 lunches and 1,500 healthy snacks a day during the school year. Last summer, Miller’s team served about 90,000 lunches and 50,000 breakfasts.
They are also in charge of school gardens; the food rescue program, which recycles uneaten shelf-stable items; and nutrition education courses, including the “pick a better snack” program, which features lessons on a food of the month. (This year’s selections have included sweet potatoes, pears and kiwi.)
Miller’s team also partners with the Boys & Girls Club to serve about 200 suppers daily, meaning that for about 200 local kids, it’s likely the only meals they eat are supplied by their school.
“Amanda never lets us say we can’t do that,” said Chad Taylor, head chef for DMPS. “Sometimes there is a tendency to say ‘we can’t, we can’t, we can’t,’ but Amanda says, ‘How can we think differently to say we can?’”
In her first year on the job, Miller made instituting free classroom breakfasts in all elementary schools, as well as many of the middle and high schools, her marquee issue. The program went into effect in the fall and, so far, every school is reporting positive results.
“When everyone eats breakfast at school, we lift the stigma,” Miller said. “It’s not just the ‘poor kids’ or the ‘bus kids’ or whomever, everyone eats at school.”
From a strong social media presence to innovative menu ideas, the Miller-era school lunch program is about much more than chicken nuggets. It’s focused on “creating a culture where we can support families and allow students to succeed and learn and grow,” she said.
(Though don’t get her wrong, chicken nuggets are still very important.)
Miller doesn’t get into the field as much as she wants to, but she makes a point to go to a school lunch at least once a week.
There she hovers, watching what kids pick for lunch, how long it takes them to eat and what they throw away.
“That’s a good-looking lunch,” she tells a second-grader who has selected both cherry tomatoes and green beans to go along with his chicken nuggets.
Miller hasn’t been in the classroom for a few years — she worked at the state’s Department of Education before joining DMPS — but she still finds joy and purpose in being around kids.
After getting hot food, each student passes through a fresh fruits and veggies bar where, on this day, they can select from a berry mixture, pineapple slices, cherry tomatoes or a three-bean salad.
Choice has become an important part of DMPS school lunch. Servers communicate with students about what they want to eat before plating, she said.
“We want to make sure they feel like they have control over what they eat,” she said, “and we think that will help them make healthier choices in the future, too.”
The Trump administration recently relaxed regulations surrounding school lunch, but Miller and her team are sticking with the Obama-era guidelines, which call for more whole grains and less sodium.
“I don’t see any reason to change at this point,” she said.
When Miller was a child, she’d host her very own cooking show — “Cooking with Mandy” — to an assemblage of teddy bears.
Her younger brother pretended to be the camera operator and sometimes her parents, Bob and Victorica, would be drafted into the audience.
“I’d measure all my ingredients out and tell the ‘audience’ what we were making,” Miller remembered. “It was kind of silly, but so fun and, looking back, I think it really helped to develop my love for cooking and for food.”
Miller’s childhood was marked by activities, her parents said. From speech to volleyball to student council, Miller was always doing something with someone.
After graduating from Forest City High School, she went to Waldorf Community College before getting a bachelor’s in food science from Iowa State University. Her first job was at Wolf Appliances, where she’d researched oven cycles by making yellow cakes and roasting chickens. She didn’t dislike the job, but she spent most days in a test kitchen all alone.
“She gets so much energy and strength from interacting with people, it was clear to us that she needed to be back around people to be truly happy,” said her father, a retired superintendent.
She got another bachelor’s degree and eventually became a family and consumer science teacher at West Des Moines Valley High School. There, she mixed her fondness for food with her newly discovered love of educating, throwing in a dash of creativity.
At Valley, Miller had a class late in the day with mostly older kids, fellow teacher Carmen Clark remembered. It was a sort of disengaged group, and Miller had to come up with new ways to keep them hooked, Clark said.
“One day I saw her walking the hallways with this class and she was teaching them as they were walking. She knew those five or six kids needed to be moving to pay attention,” Clark said.
“She made up songs and chants. I mean, she was just willing to do whatever it took to help kids learn.”
While the DMPS lunch crew is always looking for new ways to lower sugar, lower sodium and cut calories in the right spots, chef Taylor is also actively trying to add more ethnic flavors to their menu.
As a majority-minority school district, principals constantly seek ways to make their students feel more comfortable at school, Taylor said. Food is an easy way to make classrooms feel a little more like home.
This year’s menu features food from all over the world, including a spicy curry bowl, a vegetarian sweet potato curry, fish tacos topped with coleslaw, and a Thai bowl with noodles, a peanut-like sauce and fish or chicken.
“People are very judgmental of food, but we eliminate that prejudice when we add those flavors to the school menu,” Taylor said. “It goes from, ‘That’s weird,’ to, ‘Oh, yeah, we eat that at school.’”
Taylor also seeks inspiration from the food he sees kids enjoying. His cheddar drop biscuits, for example, are a healthier version of Red Lobster’s.
Miller’s team wants students to choose to eat with them. They are like a business in that way and as long as they can stay within the federal health guidelines, they are going to cater to the needs of their clients.
“We are very aware that some of our students have other options,” Miller said. “All those kids could bring cold lunches from home, but they don’t and we know that by not bringing lunch, their parents are entrusting us with their child’s health. We don’t take that for granted.”
About a decade ago, DMPS centralized their kitchen in the basement of the old Colonial Bread building. The move not only cut labor costs, but it also standardized the district’s food, much of which is still made from scratch.
“The labor model is 20-30 people for the entire school system,” said Taylor.
The nutrition program is in the black right now, Miller said, but her team keeps a close eye on how they are spending.
In the district’s fiscal year 2018 budget, which runs from July 2017 to June 2018, Food and Nutrition Management is projected to bring in about $21 million in revenue and spend about $20 million, leaving about $900,000 excess to carry over. For the past three years, Miller’s department has been able to slowly add excess to their savings, which is projected to total about $3 million at the end of this school year, according to the budget posted to the district’s website.
In Des Moines, about 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 45 of the district’s 64 schools are part of the Community Eligibility Provision, meaning every student at those schools eats at no cost.
While the most of the DMPS school lunch funding comes from the federal government’s meal reimbursement program, the district does receive some state money. In fiscal year 2018, the district is budgeted to receive about $19 million from the federal government and about $180,000 from the state.
“We don’t have any other sources of revenue,” Miller said. “We can do caterings and that is some revenue, but reimbursement is how we make money and our budget is balanced to the penny.”
In recent years, school lunch debt has been a recurring topic of conversation.
Debt hasn’t been a large problem for Des Moines Public Schools because the nutrition department works closely with school administrations to get those that need financial help set up with applications for free and reduced lunches, Miller said.
But when someone does slip into debt, she said the district will do whatever it can to help, including setting up payment plans.
“There will always be debt in school meals,” Miller said. “That will never go away, but we are doing everything we can to figure out ways to get food to kids that need it.”
Every time Miller is at a school watching lunch, she thinks of one particular student. He couldn’t have been older than a fourth-grader when he ran up to her a year ago to ask if he could have more of “those brown things covered in sauce.”
Confused, Miller asked for clarification. Finally, she acquiesced and went to his plate to find baked beans. She showed him how to ask for more.
“He was so hungry,” she said. “He ate his baked beans, oranges, corndogs and cherry tomatoes. He even stayed in from recess to continue eating. I don’t know what was happening in his life, whether he didn’t eat breakfast or was going through a growth spurt, but I was so proud we were able to give him what he needed in that moment.”
As the director, Miller understands she ultimately is responsible for what happens with the DMPS lunch program, but she doesn’t do this alone, she stresses. There are more than 300 people that play a role in getting lunch to DMPS kids every day.
“Amanda is inclusive of the whole team,” Taylor said. “She takes all of our ideas seriously and has never made me feel inferior in any way.”
Even though Miller’s plate feels full a lot of days, she knows there are students’ plates that aren’t. She has a lot of ideas to expand the school lunch program, including snow-day and weekend meals and widening the supper program.
There are some barriers to all that, she understands, but as long as everyone is guided by their mission to feed kids, there’s no question they’ll be able to do whatever they put their mind to.
“If anyone is going to do it,” she said, “it’s going to be us.”’