By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
As a “foodie at heart,” Sarah Wall loves working on the menus at TJJD. 
Spotlight On SarahWall smlr“It’s kind of like working on a puzzle, doing it for the kids specifically. There’s got to be a balance of meeting nutritional goals and national standards. There’s meeting all the requirements for the National School Lunch Program and we’re always trying to update our menu to be more kid-friendly,” explained Wall, manager of Nutrition for the agency.
“When I started here in 2019, a lot of things on the menu were very dated – things like Salisbury Steak and Sloppy Joes,” she said. “We needed things that were more kid-friendly for today. Things like a Buffalo Chicken sandwich or mini turkey corndogs but also providing exposure to new foods. But we want to keep more familiar foods too and we try to honor the cultural backgrounds of a lot of these kids.”
As with anyone trying to help oversee the meals for so many different people, there are bound to be a few ideas that don’t pass muster.
“We tried something called a ‘Rockin’ Moroccan Chickpea Stew’,” she said. “Except for one facility, it was not a hit, but we tried it.”
“Being a dietician before I was a mom, I know the way it’s supposed to be ideally, but it’s a struggle to get kids to try new things,” she said.
She’s always trying to introduce new foods at her own home. “I know what my son’s favorites are, but I’m not going to give them to him all the time. I’m going to expose him to new foods, but it’s exposure over time. I think a lot of parents give up. ‘My kid doesn’t eat broccoli so I’m not going to put it on their plate.’ Whereas I’m going to keep putting broccoli on the plate. They might not like it the first couple of times, but let’s keep trying.”
She’s also always out sampling foods herself. “It’s almost always Tex-Mex. I like going to food truck parks so I can try different foods. I love finding taco trucks or little hole-in-the-wall places.”
Wall has been with TJJD since April, 2019, and says her ever-changing daily schedule is one of the many things that keep her energized and excited about her job.
“A typical day at work for me varies throughout the year,” she said. “Right now, we’re still working on rolling out new menus. This means finding new food items, going over the food wellness survey that the kids complete, testing out new recipes at the facilities, coordinating with the food service managers at these sites, doing nutritional analysis.”
“Meanwhile, we’re also always getting questions about special diets like diabetic carb counts, we’re always addressing food grievances and tracking those. I try to make sure the kids are getting what they need.”
One of the best parts of the job is working with our food service managers, she said.
“Some of them have been here for 25 years. I love the expertise that they have, I love the camaraderie I have with them. Speaking with them always brightens my day and it connects me to what’s going on at the facilities “
A challenge Wall enjoys is finding an effective approach that works for TJJD youths’ special needs.
“What we know from nutrition research is that high levels of stress and anxiety, certain medications, significant adversity in life, especially in early life, impact nutritional needs. Negative nutrition can impact anxiety regulation and brain development and function. It can make mental behavioral disorders worse. What we want to do is provide a diet that’s rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, that is whole foods based, rich in antioxidants – all of this helps regulate neurological systems.”
“There is such a thing as a trauma-informed approach to eating, there’s a way to make our diet therapeutic. We can make it more anti-inflammatory, whole foods-based. We’ve tried to provide more omega 3-rich foods on a regular basis like walnuts or guacamole. We’re adding a lot more antioxidants into the menu – colorful fruits and vegetables.”
“We also ask for feedback every year with our food wellness surveys, so it’s not just me over here coming up with this stuff. We always get requests for hot sauce, so we work that in with something at lunch and dinner we call a “Flavor Station” in the cafeteria. It’s essentially a salt-free, sugar-free seasoning blend station. After they get their tray of food, they can add things like lemon pepper or crushed red pepper flakes to their food.
“At dinner we can offer hot sauces like Tabasco as an option. We don’t offer those at lunch due to (exceeding) sodium requirements but we have a little more flexibility for dinner. It gives the kids more choices, more autonomy over their food. Hopefully it gets them to eat more vegetables.”