FreshStart 2019 speaker Robert Cuellar, Jr. is giving back to the Laredo, Texas community that served him, by paying it forward to more than 24,000 students in his school district.
The “busiest restaurant in town” is the school cafeteria, but no two are serving the same menu.
Robert Cuellar, Jr., MPH, the Child Nutrition Program Director of Laredo Independent School District (ISD), has been working in the Laredo ISD for over 11 years, and has played a key role in renovating the school district’s foodservice. He incorporates over 65 produce items— from seasonal produce to exotic produce—in the schools’ breakfast and lunch menus as well as in the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program menus.
“I found my passions for health and wellness after noticing my parents had heart issues and diabetes from not eating healthy…I wanted to study something to benefit Texas and the city I was born in,” says Robert. “I want to bring my wealth of knowledge back to my community.”
Robert’s introduction of salad bars in the district’s schools through the United Fresh Start Foundation’s Salad Bars to Schools program first started changing attitudes and encouraging kids from disadvantaged homes to develop healthy habits.
But it didn’t come easily. Initially, there was skepticism about the salad bars. With a 98.2% free and reduced lunch rate, many of Laredo’s students come from disadvantaged homes and backgrounds that may struggle to support healthy at-home meals made with fresh fruits and vegetables. Robert knew he had to get the kids on board before he introduced the salad bars and other fresh produce options.
Robert and his staff created the Student Menu Advisory Committee (SMAC), a group of 4-5 students from each school who provide suggestions and feedback on new menu items. Students appreciated being consulted and involved in the menu planning, and this led to a “food court” style cafeteria setup with a rotating selection of fresh produce. And, of course, a salad bar, fully stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables from which to choose
The enthusiasm spread throughout the schools. Students see their peers filling their plates with fruits and vegetables, including cucumbers, peaches, pineapple, and strawberries, and they are eager to experience the new combinations of flavors for themselves. Even teachers and school administration have been purchasing more salads in the school cafeterias.
Robert never stops evolving foodservice in Laredo. “I actively seek out feedback in the form of regular morning, evening, and weekend meetings between parents and school administration to discuss student breakfast options, menus, and school food topics,” Robert says. Parents are also invited to food expos where Robert and his staff showcase their salad bars and offer taste tests of the district’s menu options.
To add further energy and excitement to the salad bars and other fresh options at school, Robert offers a variety of complementary events and programs, like Salad Bar Kickoffs, the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program Kickoff Extravaganza, the Lean Green Initiative which supports vegetarian options, and the School Fruit & Vegetable Garden (Earth’s Roots) Initiative where Laredo ISD Child Nutrition partners with Laredo Mainstreet to expand and take the school gardens to the next level.
Hear more about how Robert is transforming foodservice in Laredo, and develop a new perspective as Robert shares his impassioned account of giving back to the community that served him during a panel discussion during the FreshStart 2019 Conference on January 16. Hear from two of his school district’s students about how the changes he has implemented have had an impact on their lives, including the influence they now have at home from one mother who will share how her produce purchasing habits have changed as a result of what her child eats in his school cafeteria.
For more information on FreshStart 2019, contact Kate Olender at 202-303-3420.
By: Ben Massoud, Communications Manager, United Fresh Produce Association