MyPlate, MyTray, MyWay to Make Smarter Choices at Home and School

Long before MyPlate inspired the 2012 National Nutrition Month theme of “Get Your Plate In Shape,” creative school nutrition directors have been improving the nutrition on student trays across the county. For many first-class school programs, like the one in Waterford, Michigan, the “new” USDA Nutrition Standards really weren’t news at all. Thanks to careful planning and strategic collaborations, their meals are already consistent with the upgraded meal patterns.

When I first saw the newly-released USDA MyPlate icon on June 2, 2011, my immediate thought was “that’s a school lunch tray!” One of the first trays that came to mind was this simple, popular lunch from Waterford School District north of Detroit: Chili Mac (with whole-grain pasta and beans), white whole wheat roll, celery sticks, orange, and milk.

With Food and Nutrition Services Manager Doreen Simonds in the driver’s seat, Waterford students have been going down the healthy eating track long before USDA got on board with MyPlate. Thanks to a train engineer husband, supportive staff throughout the district, and a hefty dose of personal creativity, Doreen has developed a comprehensive nutrition education and motivation program around her Tracker Tray Train. The program helped Waterford district win several HealthierUS School Challenge awards and took Doreen all the way to the White House for a historic celebration with First Lady Michelle Obama.

Doreen credits Mrs. Obama with encouragement for the Tracker Tray concept. Her statement that the “cafeteria is the most important classroom in the school” motivated Doreen to apply for a Michigan Team Nutrition Wellness mini-grant and Tracker the Nutrition Train was born. Children’s natural fascination with trains helped to inspire the pictures and graphics, with cars representing the food groups – culminating in cafeteria murals drawn by a parent-artist.

Like any good brand, the Tracker Tray concept is easy to extend into many aspects of the school nutrition program in Waterford, including:

  • Tracker Tray books (by Doreen Simonds), which foodservice staff read in classrooms and then send home to families, extending the concept to MyPlate at home;
  • Tracker Tray Days, when student volunteers play Tracker Tract games in a corner of the cafeteria and children can track their eating at school, beginning with a healthy breakfast; and,
  • Coming soon, a brand-new mascot in an engineer’s costume, WSD Depot Dog “Diggin” who will help Waterford “dig into good nutrition.”

According to Doreen Simonds and the photographic evidence, students and staff in Waterford are already digging into lots of nutrient-rich options. She credits the Tracker Tray program with helping to increase participation among the 11,500 students (51% free and reduced), as well as increasing the consumption of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low-fat milk. Never one to rest on current successes, Doreen has already set her sites on a Guinness World Record – for low-fat milk consumption!! Stay tuned for this one – I have no doubt that there will be some great photos from the event.

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