16 Dec He grew up hungry. Now he wants to revolutionize school lunch
School cafeterias often draw on less-than-pleasing stereotypes, with many thinking back to the days of servers in hairnets peddling unappetizing slop to lines of disappointed schoolchildren.
Rodney Taylor, Fairfax County Public Schools’ food services director, sees something entirely different. In his ideal school cafeteria, children would have options much like they would in a mall food court. They would find meals similar to those in their favorite fast-casual eateries, with salad bars, fresh wraps and made-to-order burritos. Produce would come from local farmers.
Taylor, a veteran of the school-food-service industry who helped bring the concept of salad bars and farm-to-table to school lunchrooms in Southern California, came to Fairfax County a year ago with the goal of turning it into a national model for school lunches.
He is a long way from achieving his ideal lunchroom, but Taylor already has made major strides, turning the money-losing food services program in one of the largest school systems in the nation into a revenue generator. He has installed more salad bars and has introduced “Fresh Express,” a line of entree salads and wraps similar to what is served in restaurants like Panera. He said he has saved the district nearly $1 million in food costs and is in talks to buy directly from local farmers.
“I found my passion in providing nutritious meals to kids, and so I wanted to go about changing that and by being creative and innovative and mimicking what happens in the marketplace,” said Taylor, who served in the same role at California’s Riverside Unified School District and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
For Taylor, the mission to transform school lunches is personal. He grew up poor in Southern California and relied on friends and their families to feed him. While school lunches might be the butt of jokes for some, they are a lifeline for children who don’t get enough to eat at home. Even in relatively affluent Fairfax County, 28 percent of schoolchildren — or roughly 52,000 students — qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
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