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Community Health All-Star

Suzy Sayre Ushers in Smarter Lunchroom Movement at El Monte High School District

Ms. Suzy Sayre is the Director of Food Services for the El Monte Union High School District. She’s not only the leader and administrator of 80 employees, but she also creates school lunch menus, oversees commodities and free and reduced lunch applications submitted by parents and ensures that all health regulations are followed. And on top of that, she does it all with a huge smile and an emphasis on teamwork.

Ms. Sayre has made significant strides throughout her district in making healthy options easy, available and appealing, which are the core ideas behind the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. The partnerships she has created will continue to help increase awareness, improve participation and create healthier schools. Her success drives her to do more in each school.

In addition to working hard for the district, she also generously volunteers her time with Best Friends Animal Society, building awareness of shelter animals. It is clear that she has a heart of gold both on and off campus. She always notes the team efforts behind her work and never takes complete credit for her accomplishments. Her goal has always been to provide El Monte Union High School District students the very best in the world of child nutrition and she is certainly achieving this!

Q + A With Suzy Sayre

Read what she had to say when our Community Nutrition Adviser, Candice Sainz, interviewed her.
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What is a Community Health All-Star?

Community Health All-Stars are individuals or organizations that are making a difference in their communities by creating a great impact through nutrition education. Learn more

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Making Smarter Lunchrooms a Reality

Dairy Council of California has partnered with Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition, and the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement in California to assist schools in implementing Smarter Lunchroom practices. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement also includes California Department of Education, California Food Policy Advocates, University of California Cooperative Extension the California Endowment, the California Department of Public Health, and Kaiser Permanente.

Q + A With Suzy Sayre

Q: I know that since 2003 you have worked to completely revamp your school lunch program. Tell me what your initial strategies were.

A: My main priority was finding ways to increase participation so students don't go hungry and have the energy to learn in class. With 89 percent of our students being eligible for free and reduced meals, our meal service may be the only opportunity these students have to eat throughout the day; at least a nutrient-rich meal. Yet, we didn’t have resources around the Smarter Lunchroom Movement back then so I started from the ground up. I had several strategies I wanted to set in motion:

  • I aimed to move away from prepackaged meals, French fries and sodas by offering fresher, healthier options.
  • I wanted to increase the amount and variety of fruit and vegetables available and present them in a more appealing way so students would not only take them but eat them. As we all know, it’s not nutrition until it’s eaten. 
  • I redesigned the flow of service and appearance of each café to provide a new, trendy, modern look to match each school’s mascot and create a place where students actually want to come for meals.

Tied in with this, I was hoping these changes would prevent student theft while also speeding up service so students have more time to eat. I knew a lot of these changes could be made with little to no cost with some imagination. However, my vision was on a grander scale. Lack of money was an issue and I wanted to avoid increased labor time and the overall burden on the lunchroom staff and school administrators.

Q: It's obvious you are passionate about your work, yet, that sounds like a huge undertaking. How did you begin to make these changes?

A: I definitely didn’t make any of these changes on my own. It was integral to have our Administration on board and our department couldn’t have done this without their support. I worked closely with my staff and many district and community partners over the years to implement each strategic area. Thanks to a few grant opportunities, we were able to start with low participation school sites to begin implementing the improvements. We focused on the following:

  • Increased the number of serving lines by adding outdoor enclosures 
  • Changed speed lines into buffet lines. 
  • Eliminated a la carte meals and snacks. 
  • Made sure all meals qualified for reimbursement. 
  • Added whole grain foods, salads and a variety of fruits and vegetables to the menus. 
  • Eliminated trans-fats and lowered saturated fats.

Q: Have you been able to determine if any of these changes have made a difference?

A: Without a doubt. All of our changes combined have resulted in a 49% increase in nutrient-rich lunches served throughout the district. That means we are now serving an additional 74,000 meals to fuel our students each year. I think the most notable change we made was modernizing the overall appearance of the cafeterias. I always wanted the serving areas to be fun and exciting for our students. For instance:

  • We changed El Monte High School into a 50’s Café. 
  • We used a rainforest theme for the Rosemead High Panthers. 
  • Arroyo High School became a beach paradise 
  • South El Monte High School became an international café with a buffet bar, burger bar, salad bar and hot specials bar.

We made huge changes to modernize our meal service. Smaller, lower cost changes also had a positive impact like some of these strategies that we used for milk:

  • We serve milk chugs now in place of milk cartons. 
  • We moved the milk chugs so they were easier to reach.  
  • We added posters and visuals to promote milk. 
  • We gave students incentives such as Got Milk pins and Refuel with Chocolate Milk lanyards.

Those simple changes alone increased milk sales by 40 and 70 percent at two schools respectively. So much is possible…it’s all about the kids.

Q: In addition to modernizing your school cafeterias, how have you worked with the community and your own staff?

A: Our department has promoted Farm to School to help raise awareness within the district about the importance of eating locally grown, in-season products. We also work with partners like Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention to promote fruits and vegetables and Dairy Council of California to implement strategies which are today known as the tenets of the Smarter Lunchroom Movement. I also continue to work closely with my staff to help implement new programs and push for greater participation from the schools and their students. Promoting nutrition and educating students about the benefits of eating healthy is just as important as the aesthetic changes we have made.

Q: You have already made so many changes since 2003. What are your next set of goals for your meal program and beyond?

A: We are always focusing on what is best for the students so we will continue to make changes. Right now our goal is to increase breakfast participation and we have already starting implementing our strategy. It’s so difficult to market breakfast programs to students because they’re teenagers, they don’t necessarily want to wake up early. We’ve recently added breakfast vending machines that are ‘grab-and-go’ in all schools and have been promoting the program to students by passing out breakfast T-shirts and posters—we’ll be monitoring the progress of that program very closely. We’re also thinking about implementing a ‘second chance breakfast’ later in the morning that will allow students another opportunity to have breakfast when it makes sense for them.

With the help of both Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention, Dairy Council of California and other partners, we’re also in the process of revising the district's Local School Wellness Policy to be board approved, readable for parents, visually appealing and to include improved language to support a healthy school environment. Our district aims to change the school culture and focus more broadly beyond the school meal program. We are all looking forward to seeing even more change that will lead to healthier students who are ready to learn.

Photos provided by Ms. Sayre