Joe Urban grew up working in his family’s Italian cafe in New Jersey and spent much of his adult life building a successful string of ’50s-themed diners.
But when Urban’s wife, Erica, suggested that he consider running the Greenville school district’s food and nutrition services department, after the couple sold the restaurants and moved to the city in 2007, he balked at the idea.
“School food was not a great experience for us growing up, ’cause the cafeterias were not very good—lots of the processed kind of junk that you see in a lot of the country still,” said Urban, 49.
“I spent my life in food, taking great pride in serving good stuff, so I didn’t think this would be a good fit for me.”
But he got the job, and it turned out to be a great fit.
Urban brought his business savvy and commitment to fresh food and customer service to “the county’s largest restaurant chain,” proving that restaurant-quality fare can be healthier for students and the district’s bottom line.
He overhauled nutrition services for 84 schools and 16 additional education sites in the 77,000-student school system: updating equipment and training cafeteria staff to make meals from scratch; involving students in meal planning; and exposing students to careers in the culinary world.
Greenville’s food evolution provides a counter example in a year when the federal government has rolled back nutrition standards for school meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, in part because of criticism that healthier foods would cost more and turn off students.
By deeply investing in his staff—a group that gets limited professional development—and engaging students, Urban’s work highlights a way for districts to provide nutritious and appealing meals to students while still staying in the black financially.
“We knew that school food was going to have to change, and we wanted to get in front of things,” he said of the 2010 federal law to create national, science-based nutrition standards for school meals. The resulting rules barred high-sugar flavored milk and required schools to serve more whole grains and less sodium, among other things.
The changes Urban made in Greenville impacted hundreds of students: More than three-quarters of the district’s students eat school lunch, and a third eat breakfast at school—a significantly higher percentage than the national average. About half of students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
When Urban arrived in Greenville, each school planned its own menu, making buying ingredients a scheduling nightmare. Most of the staff had been trained only in heat-and-serve food preparation and their cooking skills varied widely. That meant the quality of the meals differed from school to school.
“So many employees here had been doing things a certain way for so long that not only were we going to have to change the manner in which we practiced preparing food. … we also knew that there were going to be some mindset changes,” he said.
Urban started with the basics. He hired new managers and site coordinators from local restaurants and colleges. He teamed up with Greenville Technical College to develop 20 hours of nutrition training and 20 hours of culinary skills training for the district’s 750 food services employees. Half of the course focused on child nutrition. Staff learned how poor childhood eating habits contributed to the county’s high obesity rate and mapped the so-called “food deserts”—areas with little or no access to fresh and healthy food—around their students’ homes.
For the second half of the class, the cafeteria staff—the vast majority of whom had been home cooks before coming on board—learned core kitchen skills, from knife safety and uniform cutting techniques, to coordinating prep duties, to standardizing recipes.
It took more than two years to update and retrain everyone, but today, the staff not only cooks student meals from scratch but also caters teacher and school board meetings and participates in local cooking festivals and competitions.
The money saved from consolidating menus and reducing kitchen waste added up quickly. The district has saved about $3 million of its more than $41 million food services budget in the past five years.
Urban reinvests the savings and profit from higher food sales to replace as much of the district’s canned and processed food as possible. Today, all of the fruit and nearly all of the vegetables they serve are fresh, with most of the produce coming from local farmers. Greenville has switched out frozen processed chicken nuggets for tenders made from whole pieces of chicken. Every school has a fresh soup and salad bar daily and fresh seafood, like wild-caught Alaskan salmon or local catfish, at least once a week in elementary and twice a week in secondary grades. And in several of the district’s high-poverty schools, Urban has installed tower gardens where students learn to grow herbs and greens, which are used in the cafeteria for salads and sides.
“When I got here, we were buying a pre-cooked hamburger that had probably over 20 ingredients in it, which is scary to me,” said Urban, who now gets beef from a local rancher.
Hamburgers now have four ingredients.
“It’s certified Angus beef; it’s garlic; it’s salt; and it’s onion,” he said. “That’s it.”
Urban has kept the food budget for the largest school district in South Carolina solvent even as other districts’ food services struggle to make ends meet. An analysis by the local Greenville News in August found that Greenville spent only $472 per student on meals—$77 to $211 less than the next two largest districts of Charleston and Horry counties. While the other two districts ended the last fiscal year with a deficit in their food budgets, Greenville had a more than $360,000 surplus.
That cushion has helped Urban provide more support for students in poverty.
“There’s a large percentage of students that come to school that, unless they’re with us, they’re not getting high-quality nutrition,” he said. “Some of these kids … don’t eat on the weekends. Before I really got into this, I didn’t really understand the extent of that as well as I do now.”
Greenville now provides free breakfast to all students, and it has been able to take a softer approach to working with families who owe cafeteria debt at a time when districts nationwide are facing backlash for “lunch shaming,” or aggressively trying to collect meal debts.
Urban pledged that he’d never single out students who owe the district money or refuse to feed them.
There’s a large percentage of students [who],… unless they’re with us, they’re not getting high-quality nutrition.
Three years ago, Greenville bought two food trucks, painted with bright fruits and vegetables, and expanded the summer meals program. The program now reaches students in high-poverty apartment complexes and other areas who aren’t participating in summer school or community programs where meals are provided.
During the school year, the trucks serve a different purpose: letting students “taste test” new menu items.
While the cafeterias keep some kid-standard fare, like hamburgers and pizza, Urban regularly rotates and adds new dishes from local seasonal foods. The cafeteria staff uses the food truck to sample new offerings at different schools to figure out whether, say, a barbecue dish needs more spice or should be served only at the high schools. Most of the time dishes survive with a few tweaks, but students took a hard pass on sushi rolls.
Urban also partnered with Greenville’s annual music and food festival, Euphoria, a four-day event that draws hundreds of visitors from across the country, to hold an annual cooking competition, in which high school students compete to provide a new item for the school menu. Students team up with Michelin-starred chefs to make their meals on stage during the festival.
“It’s a funny thing to watch my high school students instructing a three-Michelin-star chef on what to do and how to cut the onions,” said Drew Archer, a culinary arts instructor at the Donaldson Career Center.
Nate Kingdom, a second-year culinary arts student at the Donaldson Career Center, won this year’s competition with his banh mi chicken sandwich, a Vietnamese sandwich which traditionally includes meat and fresh and pickled vegetables. He worked with the food services staff to adapt the spicy dish for the middle and high school menus. It sold out on the first day it appeared on the menu.
Kingdom laughed as he recalled that Urban made sure the staff saved a portion of the sandwiches for his own third lunch period, to ensure that he got to taste his creation. He said he can’t wait until the sandwich comes back onto the lunch rotation.
Urban’s approach to involving students in their lunch menus appears to be working. His Twitter and Facebook accounts are colorful displays of daily specials, from buffalo blue cheese chicken salad to smoked-barbecue-turkey BLT sandwiches. Students see an array of “build your own” food bars, including Asian rice bowls, tacos, and top-able mac-and-cheese. Teachers can even request dishes to align with units students are studying, such as a low-country seafood boil accompanying a history lesson on South Carolina’s island fishing communities.
“I remember when [school lunch] was literally just like, you had a hamburger, a chicken sandwich, and mashed potatoes, maybe,” Kingdom said. “And now today I saw [Urban] posted that the middle schoolers were having shrimp and grits for lunch, and I’m like, that’s crazy. He’s having these delicious foods, but not only is it delicious, it’s also healthy foods.”
Jeff McCoy, an associate superintendent, said he sees more approving looks from the students, too. “In the past, while the meals were healthy, I don’t think they were all always things kids wanted to eat,” McCoy said. “I see a lot less of the food being wasted now.”