Community Connection: School nutritionist not a big fan of beets

Karen Crawford has always been interested in health and nutrition. At the end of her senior year at Parkview High School, the Lilburn native decided to pursue a career in nutrition. She obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgia State University and completed a 10-month dietetic internship to become a registered dietitian. Now Crawford works for Gwinnett County Public Schools as the nutrition education coordinator, planning programs to teach students how to be healthier.

In honor of National Nutrition Month, staff writer Heather Darenberg sat down with Crawford to discuss her favorite foods and what it's like planning the menu for the state's largest public school system.

HD: When you were younger, were you interested in nutrition?

KC: I think I've always just been a fan of food and eating a variety of food. So, yeah, I guess so. And I've always been very athletic - swimming and running and playing softball and those sorts of things. So I think so - it's always been an interest.

HD: When I was younger, I couldn't stand zucchini. Was there anything you wouldn't eat when you were little?

KC: I would not eat beets. I still won't eat beets. (laughs)

HD: Any reason for that?

KC: I just don't like them. And I want to like them, because they're so pretty. I don't know what it is. It's just not appealing to me.

HD: So what are some of your favorite foods now?

KC: I have a lot of favorites. I'm not very picky, which sort of goes with the territory of being a dietitian. My favorite food would have to be my husband's homemade pizza with spinach and feta cheese and roasted red peppers. It's sort of a weekly staple in our house. I love sushi. I love sweet potatoes. I love grapes, I love pretzels. I'm not very picky, except for beets. That's the only thing.

HD: When you were in high school, did you eat at school?

KC: I did.

HD: What were some of your favorite foods?

KC: I still talk about this to this day, but the homemade cinnamon rolls were the absolute best. You could smell them cooking as you came down the hall in the morning. We don't do those anymore because they weren't the healthiest item on the menu, but that's the one thing that I remember. And the pizzas and tacos. We still have pizza and tacos, of course, but they're much more healthier these days.

HD: What is your goal when you're planning the menu for the students? Obviously, they're kids so they might not like certain foods.

KC: Well, we try and have a kid-friendly menu. The food companies are a great help because they're making products that kids like and recognize, like pizza and hamburgers and oven-baked fries, but they've made them healthier. They're cooking them in healthier oils, they've taken out the fat, taken out the trans-fat, lowered the sodium. Visually, they look like what kids want to eat, but when you look at them nutritionally, they're a lot healthier than they used to be.

HD: What about the diversity of the school system? I know there are a lot of kids here from all sorts of different countries. Does that play a factor in how you try to plan the menu?

KC: It does. We have a lot of different entrees and foods every single day. Our menu is pretty big compared to other school systems, so I feel that there's something for everybody every single day. We have some ethnic foods - Mexican foods and Asian foods. Of course, the all-American foods - hamburger, cheeseburger, pizza. We have a pretty big vegetarian line for the vegetarians.

HD: Why do you think it's important for the students to be learning about nutrition when they are in school?

KC: It's a great opportunity. They're in the zone of learning when they're in the schools, and nutrition can (lead) into other subjects such as math and health. I just think it's a good opportunity to have all the kids get together. A lot of students eat lunch with us - 78 percent of the county eats school lunch. It's a great opportunity to impact them on nutrition, so that hopefully later in life they form good habits and they continue to make good choices.

HD: When you were studying nutrition in college, was that something that seemed easy and came naturally to you? Or is it harder than somebody might think it is?

KC: Yeah, it's not easy, but it's very, very interesting. To me, anyway. Early on, there's a lot of biology and science and chemistry, and those courses can be kind of tough. But I find it so interesting that it's OK. It's worth it.

HD: How do you stay active now?

KC: Prior to my 2-year-old son (Indiana) being born, I ran several marathons and half-marathons. So these days, it's a little tougher, but I still throw him in the running stroller and get out there. But he's getting pretty heavy. (laughs) I exercise when I can.

HD: Two years old. That sounds like a fun age.

KC: Yes!

HD: What kind of activities is he into?

KC: He just likes to run. Run and jump and gallop and skip. He's extremely active. You open the front door and he's gone. Anything in motion he likes.

HD: What about your husband (Dana)? How did you meet him?

KC: Actually, he went to Parkview High School as well.

HD: Did you all graduate in the same class?

KC: Nope. He's a couple years older, but that's where I met him. He went to Georgia State as well. We've been together ever since. We used to run marathons together, before the 2-year-old.

HD: Do you all live in Gwinnett County?

KC: We actually live in DeKalb in Decatur.

HD: What attracted you to Decatur?

KC: Well, I used to work in Children's Healthcare of Atlanta on the Emory campus, so it was close to work.

HD: What interested you in working for Gwinnett County Public Schools?

KC: Well, being a Gwinnett County grad, No. 1. I had worked in the hospital for five years and just felt that it was time for a change. I really liked the idea of working with kids who were healthy and impacting them in a way that hopefully lasts a lifetime. So all those things together just seemed like a great fit.

HD: At the hospital you were working primarily with people who were sick?

KC: I worked strictly with cystic fibrosis.

HD: That sounds like a difficult job. Emotionally, how did you handle that?

KC: It was hard, because it's a chronic disease and you see the same patients over and over and over again. So you really get to know them and you get to know their family. It's very draining, which is why after five years, I felt like I needed something different.

HD: What's it like planning menus for a school system this size?

KC: It's a lot of fun. That's my favorite part. Favorite part of the job is planning the menu and looking at new products and seeing how we can make things more interesting and more fun for the kids. It's great.

HD: Now do you ever sample the foods?

KC: Absolutely. We're taste testing all the time, which is another great part of the job.