Revolutionizing School Food in Greenville County Schools with Joe Urban

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In this episode, we sit down with Joe Urban, the Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Greenville County Schools. Learn about the revolutionary food service program at Greenville County Schools, serving an astonishing 85,000 meals a day to students. We explore the challenges and triumphs of implementing a healthier and more nutritious menu, breaking down the regulations and costs associated with serving students from different financial backgrounds. Joe shares how they achieved this feat, from investing in training their staff to becoming an advocate for change in the community. We also discuss the origins of the program and the remarkable impact it has had on Greenville County.

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Katy Smith: When you think of school food, what comes to mind? Frozen and reheated entrees, vegetables with little flavor and cooked until they have a grayish hue, pre-packaged cups of pale fruit? Sadly, that does describe meals in many districts in the United States, but not here in Greenville County, South Carolina. Today I talk with Joe Urban, director of Food and Nutrition Services at Greenville County Schools.

Joe is a chef, an innovator, and a national influencer inspiring food service professionals in how healthy, delicious, and successful school food programs can be and how government can make big changes in partnership with others who care. I urge you to follow him on social media, @ SchoolFoodRocks, and the dishes you see there will make you realize there is a better way for our students.

We’ll put links on the episode pages. The dishes you see will make you realize there is a better way for our students.

Joe, I am so glad that you’re here today. I just love what you do for kids and for innovation across the country, and I’m delighted for you to share with folks here today about it.

Joe Urban: Thank you so much. I, think I’m a little more excited than you are to be on this cuz you’re one of my favorite people in Greenville, so thank you so much.

Katy Smith: Well, we both believe in good stuff happening, so glad we can put our heads together.

Joe Urban: I appreciate it.

Katy Smith: Yeah. All right. Well, why don’t you begin by just giving us an overview of the scope of school food in Greenville County schools, like numbers of students, employees, all of that.

Joe Urban: So, Greenville County Schools is one of the largest programs in the country. Roughly there’s about 14,000, little over that, school districts in the country and, and we’re, I think 43rd at this point. We have 106 schools and special centers and my program is providing meals out of 97 of those locations with 94 of those being, you know, for full service kitchen.

Katy Smith: Wow, that’s amazing.

Joe Urban: 77,000, I think 800 students. Is is today’s number?

Katy Smith: Wow. And so how many employees are needed to deliver that kind of service?

Joe Urban: We have 750 employees working directly from my department. 25 of them are in our essential office, and the rest of them are, are hands on in the schools themselves.

Katy Smith: Wow. That is amazing. So with that many schools and that many students, how much food is put out each day, each week to all of these students?

Joe Urban: That’s a huge number. So, we’re serving 85,000 meals every single day here to students of Greenville County Schools.

Katy Smith: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. How does that break down? Breakfast, lunch, if you know that.

Joe Urban: The vast majority of it is lunch. Uh, we’re doing about 25,000 breakfasts. The rest are gonna be at lunch. Yeah. And then we got a few afterschool snack programs, but that represents a few thousand, but the vast majority of it is lunch.

Katy Smith: That’s amazing. So Greenville County Schools is a model district for the rest of the whole country. I hope everyone knows that, but if not, they’ll know afterwards. But maybe you can just give a high level overview first of how does school food work from kind of the federal government to the state government to local?

We’re focused on local, but this is all very intertwined with policy at all levels of government. Can you describe a little bit about that?

Joe Urban: Absolutely. So I think some of the misconceptions of school food programs are that they are part of the normal district, local district’s general fund, and, and that is not the case. So our programs are required to be financially self-sufficient from the school district itself. So, that ensures that no revenue is being taken away from districts that are intended to be supported for the students.

So not all school districts are self-sufficient. We are, uh, we give our district a, a considerable amount of money back every year that goes to pay for construction, equipment, employee costs, fringe benefit costs, and everything you can think of that goes into operating our programs. we are federally regulated in that we have to follow the National School Lunch Program regulations.

And so there’s a lot of rules there regarding the types of food we have to serve, uh, the nutritional content of those meals. The State Department of Education is charged with the oversight of our program. So, federally, U S D A assessor rules. At the state level, the State Department of Education is required to ensure that we’re following all those rules.

And then locally, we just follow our normal district policies. All the revenue, 65% roughly of our revenue is derived from U S D A reimbursable meals.

Katy Smith: And how does that breakdown per meal? Because I know that when my kids were young and I would go eat with them at school, which was always a favorite of mine, there were different rates that might be charged. How does that breakdown for a full paying student, a reduced price, a free price?

Joe Urban: So, obviously students on free meal status don’t pay anything. Federally, uh, students on reduced meal prices are required to pay 40 cents for lunch, but we have waived that fee this year because we, we operate a very efficient program and we know that students that qualify for reduced meals versus those that qualify for free meals. The level of income is, is really, really close. So even 40 cents for, for a parent of maybe two or three, uh, students on reduced meal status could be significant in, in, in their budget. So we have chosen to waive that and we will continue to waive that annually as we’re able to do so.

But a full paid student in Greenville County pays $2 and 50 cents for lunch. We provide breakfast for free of charge for all students in Greenville, regardless of your status cause we believe that that meal is very important for their success in the classroom. Um, that $2 and 50 cent number is, uh, important because we’ve been able to hold that rate for six years straight now.

Our program is run very efficiently and, and as such, we’re able to control our food and labor costs and maximize our, our revenue and, and, uh, and profits per se. And because of that, we’re able to hold that price and we’re gonna continue to hold that price at two 50 for as long as we’re able to do so.

Katy Smith: Okay, so if you have not ever eaten in Greenville County School’s listeners, and you’re hearing those prices and all these efficiencies, you might have a picture of school food that is from your youth or what you might be imagining.

Joe Urban: Bad picture.

Katy Smith: Joe, will you just describe what are folks gonna see if they walk into any given cafeteria in Greenville County schools?

Joe Urban: So these, these are the, the common things you’re gonna see that are very uncommon in school districts around the country. So, a typical school lunch throughout the country is gonna look like a lot of frozen or canned fruit. A lot of, uh, maybe pre-packaged vegetables. Um, what you’re gonna see in Greenville is nothing but fresh fruit, period.

The only exception to that will be unsweetened applesauce, which we, we provide, cuz elementary kids really like that. So that’ll be an option every now and then, plus it’s shelf stable. Which allows us to, uh, have a little bit of stock in place just in case there’s any kind of issues with, with the produce market, which happens a lot lately.

So, first and foremost, we’re serving the highest quality fruits and vegetables possible. No canned fruit, no canned vegetables. You’re only gonna see fresh fruit. You’re gonna see fresh or frozen vegetables. So we’re serving the highest quality produce possible. Outside of that, any grains you see in our, in our program, with the exception of rice and tortillas, is gonna be locally sourced.

So we have a baker here in Greer, South Carolina, who produces all of our U S C A compliant roles. Weather it’s a hamburger roll, sub roll, dinner roll. Everything that’s on our, uh, on our plate is produced right here in Greenville County.

Katy Smith: That’s amazing.

Joe Urban: It, one of the things I’m most proud of is if you think about school food service, you think about highly processed, you know, precooked, proportioned, lots of ingredients.

You’re not gonna see that in Greenville. What you’re gonna see is the highest quality proteins possible. We serve nothing but certified Angus beef. A hundred percent of our beef offerings are certified Angus beef, and we are the first and only school district ever to be licensed to do so.

So that means every one of our beef offerings are a certified Angus beef. When you get into other proteins, we use nothing but sustainably caught wild Alaskan, uh, seafood, whole muscle chicken products. You just, all of our protein items are the highest quality possible, and that’s very unique in school food service.

Katy Smith: It’s amazing. It, it tastes good, but it also looks beautiful. So talk a little bit about presentation.

Joe Urban: The success of our program, I mean, there’s a thousand things we gotta do, right? Every day. So not only do we need to use the best possible ingredients in our program, but we also have to make sure that our staffs are able to handle that properly. That they’re able to, you know, follow recipes and cook those to our terminal temperatures that we want.

But also that when it’s presented to our kids, it’s presented in a way that would mimic something they would see out in the community. You know, they, you know, kids like to go to the mall and the food courts and food courts are pretty impressive in the, in their offerings. So there’s a lot of, uh, you know, perfectly cooked food presented well.

So every one of our recipes, is, is able to be followed by our, by our staff. Every one of our recipes include how that food needs to be displayed on the server line for our kids. You know, they’re required to batch cook throughout the day to make sure that when a student comes in at first grade, it’s the same quality as the student that comes in at fifth grade.

So our first student and our last student should have the same quality food.

Katy Smith: I wonder if we can go back before there was this transformation in food in Greenville County. I remember when my now 21 year old started school. It was the old way of a hot dog with a little cup of baked beans and uh, maybe a cup of yogurt and everything changed. Can you talk about when that transition happened and what lead to it’s success?

Joe Urban: Sure. You’re a big part of that. You were a big part of that. You were our biggest advocate.

Katy Smith: I was an advocate, but I wasn’t there rolling up my sleeves in the kitchen. I’d love to hear that.

Joe Urban: You, you were a catalyst for that. So school food service programs are supposed to get updated guidelines every five years. The National School Lunch program is supposed to be reauthorized every five years. Hasn’t happened, you know, but we knew in 2010 things were supposed to be coming, so we tried to get in front of it.

And this is when you, you were helping us in the beginning and we knew we needed to make some changes. And we started with a pilot school at AJ Whittenburg with our friend Chef Ron Jones, who said to say hi, by the way. And we used that as a, as a pilot school to see will students accept better quality, more nutritious, less processed food.

And around that same time, we started looking to do some training for our staff. And this is where you were instrumental in, in a number of other local and state organizations who really stepped in and gave us over $750,000 worth of grant money. So we, we developed a plan to train all of our staff over the course of three or four years at Greenville Technical College, utilizing their culinary arts instructors.

And what it was was a four week culinary bootcamp per se. And during that 40 hour week, our staff did 20 hours of nutrition education and 20 hours of hands-on skills instruction by the chef instructors. And both were equally as important. You know, if, if we were gonna move to more scratch and speed scratch cooking, one our people needed to know how to do it. How to handle a knife safely, how to wash fruits of vegetables safely, you know, all those things. How to properly cook pastas and vegetables so that they’re high quality. But the second half of that, you know, looking back, I think was more important because we stepped into this and really said, okay, Greenville, which is huge, we’re gonna change.

We’re gonna change. And the change is necessary. And we told that to a group of people who’ve been doing this, some of ’em for 20 and 30 years, who were serving those hotdogs and baked beans. And they were providing a very valuable and necessary service to our students. They, they’re making sure they had, you know, the fuel they needed to get through the day.

And then we come in here and tell ’em, heck, we gotta do better. You know, we need more legumes, we need more fresh fruits, we need a better variety of vegetables. We need to start cooking again. And the initial reaction for a lot of them was, what the hell I’ve been, I’ve been doing this for a long time and now you’re telling me we’re not doing a good enough job.

And, and so that, that 20 hours in nutrition education was necessary because it was, no, you’ve been doing a great job. However, here’s what childhood obesity looks like in the United States. Here’s how it’s worse in the southeast. Here’s what hypertension and diabetes, and here’s the track for it.

So, here’s what we can do to make some small changes that will better empower our students to make better choices, number one. But hopefully two, set them up for a lifetime of better eating habits.

Katy Smith: And if I can just add some color to that experience of training these folks. What I remember from that time with Chef Ron and the folks at Greenville Tech was folks who’d worked in food service. Coming very skeptically to a week, I mean, and that’s not even a strong enough word, like arms crossed, scowls on their faces on that Monday morning of starting training, thinking like you said, why do I need to do this?

I’ve been doing this. Kids aren’t going to eat this stuff, et cetera, et cetera. And after that week of nutrition education, culinary skills, it was like so much more than that because it was taking the love they had for the kids who came through the lines each day and saying, you can be a part of this child’s physical wellbeing and your own physical wellbeing, really now that you know more about nutrition and then just giving ’em a passion for food that now your whole team has of like fresh herbs are marvelous.

Local fruit is so much better. It supports the economy. And then at graduation, at the end of that week, like the pride that everyone had from what they had learned and then taking a new passion into this new scratch cooking they were gonna do. It, it was, it’s like one of the most moving things of my career that I’ve been able to witness.


Joe Urban: it was, it was incredible and it was very obvious day one, like some people were all in, they’re like, I get it. I eat healthy at home. Thank you for doing this. And some people were like, no. And they came in mad and angry and day one, Ron didn’t have a lot of friends. That’s, but it was interesting to see that as each day progressed, like day two, like, wait a minute, there’s something here.

And then by Wednesday you’re like, all right, I’m, I’m getting on board. And Thursday the vast majority of ’em were like super jacked about it. And then on Friday they were crying and I remember some of ’em telling Ron and me, they were like, you changed my life. I understand it now. You know, not only am I gonna be happier with what I do in my professional life, but I’m changing how I live in my personal life.

And, uh, over the course of, uh, probably two or three years, our district was unrecognizable.

Katy Smith: That is so fabulous. I mean, I will say in terms of being resistant to change, a part that I was really happy to be a part of was then school starts, and you have elementary school students that those first years coming in to a transformed school menu and there were parents, some parents couldn’t be more excited, but then some said my kid’s never gonna eat this. I got to join in with PTA leadership through a role I had with LiveWell Greenville and Piedmont Health Foundation to do taste tests. And I remember hearing kids are never going to eat salmon. Are you kidding me? And offering ’em a little fork full. And lo and behold, it’s now a regular item on Greenville County School’s menu.

Yeah. All right. So let’s hear a little bit about the menus. Are there, is there a top five you can give us? Maybe your five most proud items or the five most popular items?

Joe Urban: Well, top five’s gonna be tough, but, and I’ll tell you why. Because we, we spent a number, we, we probably spent really two full years. Me, chef Ron, when he was with me and a couple other people, part of our mission every day when we came into work was like, all right, we’re gonna go visit a school and we’re gonna visit multiple schools this day, but we’re gonna walk the server line during lunch, and then every single day we’re gonna identify one thing we’re not proud of.

And that was easy in the beginning. That was easy in the beginning. And then our, our commitment was as soon as we identify that one item, it’s gone. You know, it was either gone that day or it was gone two weeks later when we were able to, uh, to get rid of our inventory. So first and foremost, I’m extremely proud of the unique quality of food in, in Greenville.

There’s a lot of programs around the country do an amazing job. But I think as a whole, nobody offers the quality of food we do. From there, you know, once we removed all the, all the things we, we were at least proud of and we got to the point where through, you know, every day for three weeks in a row, we couldn’t find anything we were proud of anymore, you know?

Then we started really attacking recipes and you know, for us, our students love international food. They love handheld items. So finding ways to incorporate those things into our menus, uh, is very important. Every Tuesday we do a different Taco Tuesday theme, whether it’s tater tot nachos, or Taco Tuesdays or, or Nacho Tuesdays.

Those are always super popular, a variety of high quality proteins and vegetarian options on there. Uh, we do St. Louis ribs every day in middle and high schools. There is certified Angus beef cheeseburgers. We do a ton of scratch made recipes. We’ve made a commitment this year to really expand our efforts into providing more vegetarian entrees, because that’s becoming more and more, uh, requested based on the growth of our community and who’s moving in here.

Um, so there, there’s a number one, I I could, I could pick 30 of ’em. Uh, you know, our, our..

It’s like asking you

Katy Smith: to choose your favorite

Joe Urban: Our Asian bar that we do every three weeks on a Wednesday where we’re doing, uh, vegetable and uh, Chicken pot stickers with, with house made fried rice and, and fresh broccoli is amazing. We, we do amazing chicken and Turkey pot pie.

There’s so many. When it’s time to reevaluate our menus, which you do all the time, I can’t find one I want to get rid of and it makes it hard. But, you know, you know, we got three week rotating menu and, and I can’t find anything that we don’t love right now.

Katy Smith: Joe, you have done some other super innovative things, food truck, partnering with euphoria. Can you talk a little bit about those projects?

Joe Urban: We’re very fortunate in Greenville in that we have incredible support from our board of directors, incredible support from our, our superintendent and administration. So they allow us to get very creative in some of our extra things.

You know, I’m, I’m thankful that they allow me to do things that are way outside of the scope of my normal job description. Uh, So we got a couple food trucks, you know, one of ’em is station at Roper Mountain House cause we have a facility there. And another one is used to, uh, travel around the district and provide, you know, special lunches for kids or treats for kids based on some sort of, uh, academic accomplishments they may have.

Uh, we have a barbecue team that we have our own mobile smoker, so we’ll travel to schools two or three times a week throughout the district to provide kids with, with incredible barbecue experiences. They can, they can have we have a, a facility at Roper Mountain that now serves kids that are coming there for field trips.

But in, I love, I love this program, but when we built this facility, I partnered with our special education department and so, not only are we serving 250 to 500 meals to kids in county and outta county who are coming to the mountain on field trips, but we use that site as a, as a, as a way to train students with special needs to get ready.

So, uh, they’re not on a diploma track, but they’re on a, a track to get what they call an employability credential. And so every quarter we have about six students in there and they work every day alongside my staff and my staff trains them on everything they need to do to serve safe quality food, hopefully in an effort to help them gain employment when they leave our district.

And we’ve been doing this for about a year and a half, and I think as of right now, there’s probably six or seven of those students who came out who’ve been, who have gained full employment with Greenville County Schools. So these are, these are kids that are, that are not on a diploma track but get this employability credential that tells the community that, hey, I’ve earned the skills to be, a productive member of the workforce.

That’s been life-changing for a lot of people.

Katy Smith: That is life changing for them and that I’m sure for the staff that are training them and for you. That’s amazing.

Joe Urban: For the people that are directly responsible for that every day. It has changed their life for sure. And for the parents of those children. I remember the, the first group we had, I had a, a mother call me and she was crying. I’m like, all right, here we go. Something, something happened, I gotta figure out.

And she goes, no, let just tell you I’m older. My child is 18. One of my biggest concerns was how does my child succeed once I’m gone? You know, what are they gonna do for work? How are they gonna make a living? How are they gonna take care of themselves? And she goes, you just hired my child and now I know my child’s gonna be taken care of with medical benefits and retire.

This is an 18 year old kid who in 28 years is gonna get a full retirement for the rest of their life. And it was life changing for her. So for us, it’s like, man, we’re, we have opportunity to do so many other things in this district than normal school food program do. And I’m very thankful for the opportunity our, our superintendent and a lot of staff.

Katy Smith: It’s amazing. Joe, will you tell folks about your background before you came to Greenville County Schools? What, what gave you the appetite Haha, to, to run a, run a school food program in this way.

Joe Urban: Yeah, so, so I’m a, I’m a product of, of the restaurant industry. I, I, my first job was in a family owned restaurant that when I was about 11 years old, I think I, I think my first job was peeling garlic for the chef every day. So, you know, I, I worked my way through a number of, of restaurants that my father owned or had part ownership and, and learned from a lot of chefs, you know, and I told my father, I said, I’m gonna be a chef.

And he goes, no, no, no. You need to be an owner. So go to school for business and then take all the skills you learned and, you know, open a restaurant, but also know how to successfully operate a restaurant. So, starting from 11 up until the time I, I graduated high school, I, I worked in a number of, of, of different restaurants and under a bunch of chefs.

And then during college, I had an opportunity to manage, to be a general manager of a national pizza franchise. And I went to college on a scholarship. So I was able to save every, you know, nickel I had there. And then right after college, I had an opportunity to open a, a fifties diner in Florida.

And, uh, I did that for 15 years, franchised a few of them. And when it was time to leave Florida, my wife was an educator, a teach special education teacher in Florida. And, and we had picked Greenville as our next landing space. She had already secured a job with Greenville County schools. I had not, and you know, and at that point I’m like, do I, do I open another restaurant?

Which is difficult, you know, regardless of 15 years of success in the business, there’s no guarantee your next venture’s gonna be okay. And so we didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And at that point I didn’t know that I wanted to like, go all in on something like that. Again, you know, we had done well with the restaurant, but I didn’t, I didn’t know that I was willing to risk my family’s future on another venture.

So I really didn’t know what I was gonna do. And I, I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the industry and working, you know, 90 hours a week, 80 hours a week, and, you know, every holiday and weekend and all those things that come with working in the, the restaurant industry. And my wife saw an opportunity with Greenville County schools and she said, do it.

My experience with school food was not great growing up and it didn’t seem like something I was gonna do. And my wife said, what do you got to lose? Just try it, see what happens.

And you know, here we are 15 and a half years later and, uh, it was the greatest decision in my life. I wish I did it 30 years ago.

Katy Smith: Well, we’re so glad that you did it. I’ll tell you what strikes me. I mean, you know, this podcast is about bringing government to people and highlight the ways that government intersects with so many other things that we do. And so the way Greenville County School’s food story is one of bringing innovation from the private sector to public school food about partnerships with so many different players, with community organizations and parents and philanthropy to help fund this change with industry partners outside of, you know, around the country, like Certified Angus beef and, and all of that. I just think you have really shown how some, a person like you and like Chef Ron Jones can be a focal point to channel the best that everyone wants for government into making huge changes within government. It’s amazing.

Joe Urban: We’re, we’re fortunate to be here. And, and I don’t think the opportunities to really impact the change that we’re making right now were really understood at in the early stages. You know, I don’t, I dunno when that clicked, but like at some point we’re like, we’re really doing something amazing. I mean, 76% of our kids are eating lunch every day.

And they’re not eating regular lunch. They’re eating incredible lunches, you know? So I mean, that, that’s an in great part to, again, all the support from our school board, even when it changes every couple years.

Our, our superintendent administration, amazing local partners, you know, so I, I could sit here for the next hour and name all the people because Greenville’s such an amazing place. And I think over the last few years, even more so, because we’ve always had a tremendous amount of, of community groups who did great work. But I think we’re, we’re very fortunate in that like, it’s like a perfect storm here in Greenville.

Our community really wants us, our staff is behind it. Our as school board administration is behind it. And like, I can call you today and say, I need this and you’re gonna find a way to find somebody to get me this. And, and, you know, school food service has a bad reputation nationally, rightly so in many cases.

But, uh, because the work we’ve done here, we can’t even imagine any greater support from our community. And it helps.

Katy Smith: I love hearing that. I just, I believe that government can do great work when good people are involved that have vision and passion in the community roles of their sleeves.

Joe Urban: You know, and if, and if you’re a, a member of another community looking to make change in, in your district contact me. We host visits every year from districts around the country, around the country in an effort to help them find ways to improve their program. So I’ll gladly assist you on your tour of one of our programs.

Katy Smith: Well, so there is another way people can learn more about your work, and that is through your podcast. Can you tell us a little bit about School Food Rocks?

Joe Urban: Yeah. School Food Rocks is, is a brand I’ve been building for about 10 years right now, and you’ll find us on all social channels. You’ll find us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And the goal of School Food Rocks is to, to help inspire change for school food nationally. And then the podcast started a couple months ago, and I’ve been asked for probably three or four years to do something like this.

And, and in my mind I was like, we’re doing good work here, but nobody else, anywhere else really, really would care to, to listen to this. And I didn’t want this to be a, like an ego thing, and, you know, nobody wants to hear about it. So finally I buckled down to the pressure and I, and I recorded a couple episodes and, and the, the response was incredible.

Uh, we have downloads in like seven countries at this point.

All of our episodes end up being within the top 25 or some of ’em 15% of all podcasts. So, um, it has connected us with people across the country looking to make change in there. So, you can find the School Food Rocks Podcast on Spotify, on Google and Apple podcast platforms as well as Red Circle, um, which where I host them.

Um, and you can also find them on the website.

Katy Smith: That is so great. So at the beginning I’ll have suggested that you go and look at school food rocks social media, and if you were driving while listening, hopefully now you’re parked and you can do so because your mouth will water and you will see what we’re talking about. And it is really thanks to the leadership of Joe Urban.

So Joe, thanks so much for being with us today and for all you do to help our children’s health and educational success.

Joe Urban: Now it’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me on, and thanks for being our greatest supporter for over a decade now.

Katy Smith: So delighted to do so.

Joe Urban: Ah, this been fun.

Katy Smith: Thanks, Joe.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.

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