Syracuse University graduate students Avis Caplan and Heidi Dashnau are wrapping up a six-week internship with Nancy Kerrigan, school lunch director for the East Syracuse Minoa School District.
The students are enrolled in the university's dietetic program, which prepares them for a career as registered dieticians. With Kerrigan, they learn every aspect of managing a program - the good, the bad and the ugly.
"I let them see everything I do," Kerrigan said. "They follow me everywhere."
Kerrigan has been involved with the internship program since the 1990s when she was working for the North Syracuse school district. She came to ESM in 2006 just as it was developing its Wellness Policy, at that time a new mandate for all school districts in New York state. She said the field has become more nutritionally focused; cafeteria foods are not just considered "school meals" anymore.
"Not everybody's liked [the menu changes]," she said. "But so far we're surviving."
Due to the school food evolution over recent years, the SU internship program has also grown to encompass the change. Interns are expected to complete projects that include extensive nutritional research, sometimes shared throughout the district. One intern compiled a carbohydrate exchange list for all the menu items served in the schools, another pushed for more kids to eat fruits and vegetables. Her findings concluded that if staff takes an active part in promoting produce, kids will respond. Other interns have held training workshop for Kerrigan's staff.
"I have never had a bad intern," Kerrigan said. "They're all bright. They're all nice. They all have talent and they're into doing things."
Caplan and Dashnau researched and developed a gluten-free, casein-free diet that was doctor-prescribed for one of the district's students; they distributed heart healthy facts to be read each morning over the schools' broadcasting system; and they reached out to School Meals That Rock, a program established by Montana dietician Dayle Hayes to end school lunch bashing. Instead, Hayes celebrates what is right with school nutrition in America. According to Caplan, she was so impressed with the ESM district that she chose to feature it for one week, from Feb. 28 to March 4, on the program's Facebook page. Typically, schools are highlighted for just one day.