By Penny McLaren 2014-07-29 05:08:07
“If a school nutrition director has a vision, that’s great,” asserts Jeanne Reilly, SNS, director of school nutrition for the Windham Raymond School District, RSU #14, in Windham, Maine. “But unless you get administrative support, your vision will go nowhere.” It’s a sobering thought for any School Nutrition reader inspired to try one or more of the many innovative approaches featured in these pages every month. But you know she is right. You could be the most creative, most ground-breaking, most strategic child nutrition director within 500 miles and seven counties, but without support from principals or superintendents you may be completely stymied in efforts to elevate the school nutrition operation— and make little or no difference in the lives of students. Luckily for Reilly, she has that support. Her district’s head administrator, Superintendent Sandy Prince, is firmly in the school nutrition camp. “He is really on board, and that has enabled us to do so many great things,” reports Reilly. “He wants us to be a leader.” Prince confirms Reilly’s impression, professing a respect for the role of child nutrition in the school setting. “When you consider that children spend one-third of every day in school, and when we know that what we eat affects what we do, why wouldn’t we model good eating habits?” Prince asks rhetorically. He has great admiration for the school nutrition team that helps students develop healthy habits for their lifetimes. “We are so blessed to have Jeanne Reilly and a great staff on board.” How can such “luck” spread to other passionate school nutrition operators who struggle to educate recalcitrant, obstructionist or simply ambivalent administrators in their communities? What exactly does it take to build a model partnership the likes of Reilly and Prince’s—one that fosters mutual respect and integrates school nutrition into district goals? School Nutrition spoke with Prince and a few other supportive school administrators from across the country to find out why they “get it” and why they take a downright avid interest in establishing healthy school environments. Their reflections may offer some clues on how you can encourage and nurture similar partnerships in your own school or district. Dream a Little Dream Quoting Aristotle, Prince is a firm believer in the philosophy that education is about teaching life, much more than it is about mathematics and history. “It is about developing habits for life,” he explains. “That is my big picture, my belief system.” Some five years ago, early in his tenure as superintendent, Prince met with Reilly and her staff to determine what they could achieve together to help graduate healthy kids. “I said, ‘Let’s sit down and do a vision activity,’” he recounts. “We dreamed about the future of child nutrition, of what it could be. There was so much excitement and commitment from people who said, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’” With this shared vision in mind, Reilly directs a profitable program that accomplishes a lot. The team’s ability to stay in the black enables her to retain a professional chef who makes frequent site visits around the district. “Whenever the chef visits a school and works with the staff and students there, our numbers go up,” reports Prince. “It is a big deal at the school.” The school nutrition department also organizes a cooking club, operates an afterschool healthy snack program and coordinates a successful backpack program (supported by one company sponsor and many volunteers), which provides weekend food to some 150 low-income students. Currently under consideration is a “nutritious coffeehouse” at the high school that will help provide the type of atmosphere that attracts teens. Implementation of the new nutrition standards went fairly smoothly, and staff continues to encourage greater consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. “It is life changing, even for myself,” Prince admits, acknowledging, “You really are what you eat. We are heading in the right direction. I think it is really vital to the students.” Prince is proud of the many ways the school nutrition operation supports the community, and taking time to develop that shared vision is an essential first step in duplicating Windham Raymond’s success. You need to get people together to discuss what the school nutrition department could be, he advises. “Get them talking, get the juices flowing. Try to get people to think out of the box. My dream is that everything will be nutritious. We will have gardens at all the schools, and they will be able to use fresh tomatoes in school meals. Someday we will look back and say, ‘Can you believe what they once used to serve in schools?’” But establishing a vision is only the first step. Prince says it is important that his team knows they can act on their ideas. “We have a culture that allows a staff person to be a risk taker, a leader, an entrepreneur,” he explains. “They know that we will be the parachutes for them, if it doesn’t work out. Otherwise, people would never take a risk.” Along with that parachute comes a little hand-holding through the apprehension that comes along with public change. “When we brought in a chef, and the press was there, [staffers] were nervous,” Prince concedes. But the professional training and assistance from the chef has helped site-level employees to successfully tackle a huge learning curve. According to Prince, it has empowered staff, and today “They can take their work to a different level.” In some districts, the school nutrition director reports directly to the superintendent— but that’s not the case across the board. If that’s not the hierarchical structure in your community, don’t presume it means you are without access to this important potential ally. “Most superintendents would welcome a meeting with the foodservice director. Call and set it up. I don’t know how they would ever say ‘no’ to that,” asserts Prince. Connect the Dots Cheryl Dickman, director of foodservice for Howard Winneshiek Community School District, in Cresco, Iowa, has vivid memories of trying to move forward with school nutrition progress in the face of a profound lack of support. “Teachers would go up against us,” she recounts. “It was tough. It was very stressful.” But with the arrival three years ago of Superintendent John Carver, “Things have lightened up,” Dickman reports. “He is behind us 100%.” It’s a mutual admiration society. “Cheryl is wonderful, outstanding,” Carver says, going on to tout the healthy menu items that are prepared fresh onsite throughout the district. A Wellness Council composed of teachers, kids and parents helps provide direction, with specific actions and programming codified in policy by the Board of Education. But it’s Carver’s philosophy of education that allows for prioritizing a healthy school environment. “In the educational system today, we are charged with preparing kids for the future locally and globally,” he explains. “Our students will serve, contribute and succeed through the body, soul and mind.” The rural district stretches across 426 square miles. But few of the negative stereotypes about rural, far-flung schools prevail. It’s a very progressive district, focused on preparing students for the current and future realities of the 21st century. For example, each and every student—at all grade levels—is provided a digital device of some type; the district even boasts two 3-D printers! Students also must commit to some form of community service. This forward thinking applies to good nutrition for children, as well. “Being in Iowa, we serve as many locally grown fruits and vegetables as we can,” says Carver. Students are encouraged to carry water bottles for regular hydration, taking advantage of water bottle refilling stations in the schools. Physical activity is emphasized; teachers will spontaneously take a few moments during class to require students to get up and move around or dance. “We think we will have the best prepared students on the planet,” declares Carver. “When students are more aware of proper health and nutrition, they are less prone to sickness, to being absent. I tell other superintendents, ‘If you are only focusing on achievement, then you are not fulfilling your mission.’” To ensure that kids focus on a healthy lifestyle, administrators must keep an open, innovative mind about many aspects of the school environment. “Everything is on the table,” Carver says. It might mean “clustering kids,” instead of applying traditional grade levels or classes; changing the school day schedule; or deconstructing the classroom, making it evoke a bookstore. In the high school, breakfast is served until 10 a.m., to accommodate early morning sports practices, and administrators are revisiting the physical education curriculum, looking at ways to meld P.E. with lifelong learning activities. “We try to connect everything together,” explains Carver. With this attention on establishing healthy school environments beyond the cafeterias, it’s not a surprise to learn that the Howard Winneshiek district earned a Gold Award in the federal HealthierUS School Challenge, and also won the Healthy Iowa Governor’s Award. But such honors are beside the point. “We’re not seeking recognition,” asserts Carver. “Everything we do is for the kids. We want them to contribute and compete in society. Kids who are physically fit and have good nutritional habits have an edge. Kids who learn to give [to others] in life are desirable employees.” “It’s all about the culture,” Carver continues. “If there are teachers who are complaining about [school meals in the cafeteria], that becomes the norm for kids—and that’s not good. In our schools, kids see their teachers eating lunch with them. It is all about contributing to what is best for kids. Teachers and administrators need to model behavior.” Carver doesn’t think he’s asking for a lot—simple compliments go a long way to boosting everyone’s morale. Isn’t that better role modeling than whining? He wants to see teachers take a moment and say to the foodservice staff, “‘Hey, I like this’ or ‘Oh, this is good today.’ I don’t understand why it has to be so hard.” According to Carver, the first step in building this type of a positive reinforcement culture is to make it clear that everyone is on the same team. Monthly district “cabinet” meetings means representation from all divisions: foodservice, buildings and grounds, transportation, IT, clerical, business office and educators. “All are contributing to what is best for kids,” he notes. “As we go, so goes the future of the students.” Walk the Talk Jennifer Cedeno was recently named interim assistant superintendent for Elizabeth (N.J.) Public Schools, promoted from her former post as principal of Terence C. Reilly School #7, which last year received national recognition for exceptional student achievement. The school also was recognized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for its emphasis on health and physical education for students. In the area of fitness, Cedeno implemented several innovative changes, including a recess before lunch schedule, new playground equipment and the establishment of a faculty and student fitness center, as well as a dance studio and a full-time dance teacher. Students regularly sign up for extra physical fitness options: dance, the Sports Clinic or Project Adventure, which emphasizes a number of team- and character-building experiences, such as orienteering or rock climbing. As a school principal, Cedeno also advocated for the child nutrition department by “bringing together a coalition of different stakeholders and applying a team approach,” she says. “By including students, faculty and PTO leaders on the Wellness Council, they offer multiple voices,” she explains. “It becomes a true family, bringing issues to the table. For students, the quality of the food is one of their biggest concerns.” Her advice to other principals? “Empower a wellness council to take initiative, to make changes,” she counsels. For example, last fall, the Wellness Council at Reilly decided to establish a healthier alternative to candy-centric Halloween celebrations. They organized a 5K Walk-a-Thon instead of a Halloween “party.” The students did all the organizing with their peers, while the adults worked to gain Board approval, arrange for police protection for the walkers and tie the event to a breast cancer fundraiser (students sold pink socks to raise money). The walk was held during school hours, and “It was phenomenal,” reports Cedeno. In creating a culture of wellness, the nutritious choices served in the cafeteria aren’t undermined by foods brought from home. If students show up with chips, cookies or sodas, parents are reminded that those lunches don’t meet the standards. “We get complaints from parents that we are over-monitoring,” concedes Cedeno. In response, she would make a personal call and “tell them about the benefits of good nutrition for students—it is an educational tool. The parents end up understanding.” The same standards apply for class parties. “I tell the security guards that if they see cookies or cupcakes brought by parents, don’t let them bring [them] into the school,” she reports. Parents are encouraged to bring a non-food giveaway or to serve fruit kabobs or another healthful treat. For school cafeteria managers who want to make changes that necessitate administrative support, Cedeno suggests researching the culture of the site in order to identify a change that can be characterized as low-risk but high-gain. Discuss it with the principal. “I would be open to that,” says Cedeno, cautioning that the timing has to be right. The very end and very beginning of the school year are not good times—there’s too much going on. The middle of testing week also is less than ideal. If possible, present the idea during the summer months. Be Persistent For Superintendent Henry Phillips, who heads the West Bolivar School District, in Rosedale, Miss., the strong evidence about the benefits of fitness and good nutrition is reason enough to throw total support toward those operations in the district. “Research shows kids do better in school when they are healthy,” he says. “That’s all it takes for me.” And his commitment and leadership is all it took to get the whole community behind a coordinated effort to get kids fit and eating healthy. “This is a real good community to be in,” credits Phillips, acknowledging that everyone must be on board to make the changes that create a healthier environment. Consider, for example, elementary classroom birthday parties. It wasn’t easy to break the longstanding tradition of celebrating with cupcakes or cookies, and Phillips concedes running into some parental resistance. Still, he notes, “Parents want to do the right thing. We make an effort to remind them that they can’t bring unhealthy foods [for their child’s celebration]. They may pout a minute, but they come around.” Phillips says his strategy for persuading the next generation to adopt healthier eating habits actually starts with the kids, not the parents. “We go through the kids to reach the adults, not the other way around; we went about it in a way that the kids would do the work for us,” he explains. “We convince the kids [to accept nutritious foods, because] Grandma will listen to her grandkid; I know she’s not going to listen to me. But she won’t tell her grandbaby ‘no.’” Regular student taste tests at school have helped many students to embrace such items as broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. West Bolivar was one of the first districts to get involved in a statewide Health is Academic initiative. Ten years later, participation has led to a number of public/private grants to help implement a coordinated school health program. The district also has received recognition from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. A key priority is providing staff, including teachers, opportunities and inspiration to stay fit—which offers both personal benefits and positive role modeling to students. “Teaching is hard work,” Phillips notes. “We give teachers the opportunity to exercise during the day. We have staff-only health fairs. Our activities run the gamut to change the culture among school staff.” The school nutrition team earns special kudos. “I am most proud of the cafeteria workers. They would work on getting a meal ready, and then before lunch, they would go for a walk.” This kind of commitment has paid off, slowly but steadily, says Phillips. “Now we have parents walking on the track to get fit. We open the gym to the kids in the summer,” he reports. “We have a pretty good community. I am very proud of them.” It does take time to change the culture, but persistence helps. So does starting small. “We began with a core group, with people who [already] believe in the need to get healthy,” notes Phillips. “Celebrate small victories. Just go for it.” Be Proactive Norris School District 160, Firth, Neb., south of Lincoln, is a one-school system, four miles from the nearest town. Without an open campus, students stay onsite for lunch, which helps participation to maintain a steady 70% rate. Foodservice Director Melinda Maendele is grateful for the support of Superintendent John Skretta. “I know that a positive relationship with good communication is critical to the success of school nutrition and book education working together,” Maendele says. “We are teaching our kids to be independent thinkers; we want them to make decisions that are good overall.” Toward those good decisions, the school nutrition department offers a wide array of healthy options, including a fresh fruit and veggie bar featuring such options as red bell peppers, kiwi, strawberries and romaine lettuce. “Schools can provide a range of things, as long as they [give the students] choices. If we provide options, kids will make healthful choices,” Skretta explains, adding, “We have become deliberate in how we provide meals to children. When we serve chicken nuggets, they are leaner and have healthful breading. The days of fryers are long gone. We embrace what is nutritionally good for students.” With sustained success at lunchtime, Skretta and Maendele are interested in expanding the school breakfast program. At Norris, the school nutrition operation recently offered a grab ‘n’ go breakfast served mid-morning, rather than before school, recognizing that students are prioritizing getting to class and greeting friends, not sitting down to a traditional breakfast. “Change is never easy. And I think there has been more change imposed on foodservice than anywhere else. There are more restrictive regulations, more consumer advocacy and more special dietary needs,” notes Skretta. Support of district and school administrators, as well as the school board, is more important now than ever—and administrators must be willing to adapt. For example, in his own operation’s exploration of grab ‘n’ go breakfast service, staff had to come together to rethink personnel, workflow, preparation steps and timing, menu items and delivery. “You don’t want to underestimate the challenges,” he counsels. Be creative in problem-solving. “We want to ‘deliver, serve and devour,’ in a way that does not interfere with the school day. There are good ways to do that,” Skretta notes. Giving students a few minutes for a food break is something that supports learning. “Teachers are on board with that,” he says. “It is all part of a coordinated effort.” Administrators, teachers and parents have had to make adjustments in the approach to classroom birthday celebrations. “Cookies and cupcakes were plentiful and the celebrations were so frequent that sometimes kids went days in a row consuming sugary treats and chasing it with fruit punch or some other sweetened beverage,” Skretta recounts. Today, class celebrations have evolved, he reports: “Whether it is a dance party or fruit parfaits, there are more active and nutritional means of celebrating that are still fun for all involved.” A Little Help Here? The school administrators profiled in this piece have shared their approaches to creating a culture for healthy school environments in an effort to give you hope that there are allies who will support your innovations. It may not seem that way if you are in one of those districts where administrators have yet to wean themselves away from the revenue generated by soda and candy sales, or who insist on making lunch time shorter—or who never eat in the cafeteria. Let these case studies give you courage. Be bold. Be ready with some new ideas. Find partners among select parents, teachers and students. Be mindful of your approach; don’t attempt to make a pitch during stressful periods, and go in to the meeting armed with facts about potential benefits. You can get your administration to see what you see: a vision of healthy and fit students ready to face their future through better nutrition. Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this magazine. Illustrations by danleap/istockphoto.com.
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