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Preparing students for a life of health and wellness

Students provided greater access to nutritious meals

March 13, 2013

Part of the Monticello School District mission statement focuses on enriching the lives of students by providing them with skills and knowledge to become responsible citizens. Educating our children about nutrition, obesity, physical activity and wellness are essential elements that contribute to our mission. The district-wide wellness committee is entrusted with the duty to promote initiatives that raise awareness and encourage everyone in our school community to model healthy behaviors.

At the George L. Cooke Elementary School, wellness committee members Amy Garrett and Jane Sorensen are on a pathway to exposing how much sugar is actually in the foods we eat. This “Sugar Shocker” initiative includes an interactive bulletin board that provides students with the conversion formula from grams to teaspoons (4 grams equals 1 teaspoon). Actual food packages from cereal and other sugary snacks are pinned to the board. Students can then decipher the sugar content of each product in teaspoons by actually spooning sugar into a cup. This gives them a visual image of the large amounts of sugar many products contain. It also exposes some of the “tricks” used by companies to make the sugar content seem lower than it really is - such as basing the number of grams on a serving size that is much smaller than the average person would eat.Health & Wellness in MCSD

“When children eat better, they feel better and ultimately, learn better,” said Ms. Garrett, who is the art teacher at Cooke. “Teaching students about proper nutrition is an important part of helping our students grow up to be healthy adults.”

We are what we eat

It is the responsibility of district food service personnel to provide students with nutritionally balanced meals and healthy snack options. The recently enacted Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act addresses the issue by requiring schools to provide healthier menu items such as fat-free milk, whole grain breads and more fruits and vegetables. The problem is, some students are not willing to try the new selections and they end up going from tray to garbage without a single bite.

This knowledge inspired Ms. Garrett and Ms. Sorensen (who is the elementary school EPIC coordinator) to launch a snack-tasting experiment during lunch. The wellness duo presented students with healthy flavorful snacks such as mandarin orange slices, dried cranberries and low sodium, chocolate-covered whole wheat pretzels. The kids went wild! Students were asked to share their thoughts and opinions about the healthy options. Almost every student responded favorably. For example, during one lunch period, 84 students were given a sampling of low fat string cheese, 83 of them loved it and expressed that they would buy it as a snack if it were available.

Photo: Wellness committee members Jane Sorensen, Amy Garrett, Doug Murphy and Denise Cedeira-Thornton with Cooke Assistant Principal Rosemarie Romano and some very happy snack sampling students.

Using Data to Support Change

After gathering the feedback from each snack sampling, the data will be presented to the wellness committee later this year to analyze and make a recommendation. The cost of purchasing the healthier snacks would play a role in the final determination. Although the tasting was only conducted at the Cooke Elementary School, it could ultimately be expanded to all the district schools.
“We tried to pick tasty snacks that were reasonably priced and affordable for the district. Many times the healthier choices are more expensive - it is what I call the paradox of healthy food - fewer ingredients at a higher price,” explained Ms. Garrett. “For example, why is plain water more expensive to purchase than many soft drinks?”

The next step in the taste test survey strategy is to eventually include some of the more obscure menu items that students seem to be afraid of or uninterested in trying, such as pickled beets, creamed spinach, raspberry poached apples and pork-free bacon.

Cooke first-graders

Photo: Cooke Elementary School first-graders, from left, Aubrey Curry, Shaylea Tate, Amiah Neails and Nyila Cole all agreed their breakfast of unsalted sunflower seeds, apple slices, a whole grain cereal bar and fat-free strawberry milk was not only healthy, but yummy as well!

Leading the way to healthier meals

Monticello’s School Lunch Manager Andrew Yeomans, also referred to as “Chef Andy,” is at the helm of the district-wide healthy food initiative. Since joining the Monticello food service team earlier this school year, he has made it his personal goal to feed our children well. This includes replacing high fat and calorie snack foods with baked chips, pretzels and reduced fat, healthier versions of all-time favorites such as Doritos and cheese popcorn. Students now have the option of choosing a granola bar or whole grain cereal bar as part of a healthy breakfast. And if Chef Andy has his way, the high calorie ice cream bars presently available will ultimately be replaced by delicious frozen yogurt.

“We are striving to serve what we call ‘perfect trays’ of food,” said Chef Andy. “That means each meal must have the proper amount of protein, grains and vegetables in reasonable portions. Our success relies on combining tasty, colorful healthy options while taking into consideration the presentation and texture of the food.”

In addition to the Cooke School snack sampling as a way to gather direct student data, Chef Andy and his food service staff members have made it their practice to offer samples to students who may be unfamiliar with a meal component. Encouraging and educating students to be knowledgeable about their food choices may help them overcome their fear of certain foods, such as those ever-mysterious pickled beets!

So how do we get children to eat and enjoy school meals? According to Chef Andy, the answer is simple: remove the institutionalized foods and flavors from the kitchen and make more meals from scratch with healthy ingredients using locally grown farm fresh foods whenever possible. To move toward this goal, Chef Andy has on-going training and professional development for his staff members to gain more knowledge about food ingredients, flavor profile recognition, knife skills and recipe development.
He also commends Monticello Schools for the high-end kitchen facilities in which they have invested. Items such as ultra-large mixing bowls, adequate counter space and professional ovens provide food service workers the tools they need to prepare the types of foods everyone wants to eat.

Helping to win the obesity battle

The Monticello Central School District Wellness Committee, co-chaired by School Business Administrator Denise Cedeira-Thornton and Director of Physical Education, Health and Athletics Douglas Murphy, meets periodically to review the district policies and practices in the areas of nutrition and physical fitness. By analyzing what students are eating and how much activity they are getting provides us with the knowledge we need on the educational journey to combating the escalating epidemic of obesity in our community and our country. A recent article by the Dallas Morning News reported that in 2010, almost 80 percent of American adults were overweight and that obesity has grown to such epidemic proportions, it now ranks as the “fifth-leading risk factor for death worldwide…and kills 2.8 million people a year.” Obesity also accounts for “$150 billion in American health care spending.”
It is vital that people of all ages understand that being in good health is the most important thing in life. Though there are circumstances beyond our control, we each have the power to choose to live a healthier lifestyle.

Food Service Personnel

Photo: Chef Andy, food service staff members and an enthusiastic high school student display the many healthy snack and food options now available in the school cafeterias.

Resources

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services provide extensive information about health and wellness on their websites at www.cdc.gov and www.hhs.gov.