Eat. Play. Learn. K is for KALE

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

K is for KALE

This blog series has been less food-focused that much of my writing – since the goal was to explore more broadly on the connections between academic/school success and overall nutrition/fitness. I want to talk here about kale in a broader ‘symbolic’ sense than about it’s nutrient values or trendy culinary reputation. Although I do have to admit that a vegetable with its own national celebration is pretty cool – more at National Kale Day (where you can now download your own Kale Hero Kit!).

Kale is a hardy and versatile veggie. It’s a successful outdoors in southern winters and a grows great in northern greenhouses during the cold months as well (the photo below is a January posting from FoodCorps Massachusetts). This means that kale is perfect for school year gardens where it gives many children their first taste of dark green leaves. It is versatile in the kitchen – delicious raw in salads, cooked in soups and perhaps, most importantly, as the surprisingly crispy and popular kale chip. An article in the Huffington Post – Kale: Benefits Beyond Nutrition – got me thinking about how much this humble green is helping children learn about growing, preparing and enjoying new foods. Kale is a combination of the ultimate local food – and the gateway to a whole nutrition world.

For more about kale chips in schools, please read my HuffPo article on Kale Chips for 8,000 and Other Farm-to-school Successes by the Numbers.

FoodCorps Massachusetts at the Food Project

FoodCorps Massachusetts at the Food Project

Eat. Play. Learn. G is for GARDEN

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

G is for GARDEN

It this point in the cold winter, it warms my heart to think about school gardens. Of course, I also get a envious when I see Florida school gardens that are green and lush when the snow is nearly a foot deep in Montana!

Why include gardens in talking about the learning connection? Students can learn all sorts of things in a school garden – botany, biology, chemistry, ecology and math to name a few. Growing food also provides the most direct, tangible connection to nutrition. I often say, if they grow it, they will eat it – there really is no better way to teach healthy eating habits than in a garden.

Here are four photos to represent the diversity and similarities of school gardens in the USA – just looking at them makes spring a little bit closer!

February 2014: Mrs. Donna Stoddard's 2nd grade class in Read-Pattillo Elementary, New Smyrna Beach (FL) are growing kale, radishes, sunflowers, parsley, cilantro, peas, sweet onions, carrots, kohlrabi, potatoes and green peppers in their school garden! Lucky students!

February 2014: Mrs. Donna Stoddard’s 2nd grade class in Read-Pattillo Elementary, New Smyrna Beach (FL) are growing kale, radishes, sunflowers, parsley, cilantro, peas, sweet onions, carrots, kohlrabi, potatoes and green peppers in their school garden! Lucky students! Thanks Fresh for Florida Kids!

June 2014: Alaska Elementary School Garden, Thanks Alaska Farm to School!

June 2013: Alaska Elementary School Garden, Thanks Alaska Farm to School!

March 2013: AMAZING lettuce planted, grown and harvested in the "Garden of Learning," Gary A Knox Elementary School, Crane, Arizona

March 2013: AMAZING lettuce planted, grown and harvested in the “Garden of Learning,” Gary A Knox Elementary School, Crane, Arizona

April 2012: University City High School Garden, Philadelphia, PA, an oasis in the middle of the city and my favorite urban school garden.

April 2012: University City High School Garden, Philadelphia, PA, an oasis in the middle of the city and my favorite urban school garden.

Eat. Play. Learn. F is for FUEL Up

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

F is for FUEL Up

I’ve been a serious fan of FUEL Up to Play 60 since its 2007 kickoff. I’ve seen the frontline benefits in my hometown (Billings, Montana) and in many states across the USA. I wrote the SNA toolkit: Make Fuel Up to Play 60 Work For Your School Nutrition Program and know for certain that the program can enhance school environments, nutrition programs and academic achievement.

In my playbook, FUEL Up to Play 60 scores a touchdown because, at the school level, all plays are planned and implemented by students themselves! If we want to raise a healthier generation of Americans, it is today’s youth who need to make a commitment to wellness in their own lives. FUEL Up to Play 60 grants and resources support and inspire young folks to make the program’s tagline a reality. Here are three examples of how student leaders are making health happen in their schools.

  • EAT HEALTHY. The FUEL Up to Play 60 Willow Creek team (pictured below) served yogurt parfaits and whole-wheat breakfast burritos made with turkey sausage during a National School Breakfast week celebration.
  • GET ACTIVE. The creativity of FUEL Up to Play 60 teams really shines when it comes to fitness fun – and the added minutes of physical activity have helped kids get fit and schools meet the criteria for USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge.
  • MAKE A DIFFERENCEFUEL Up to Play 60 helps motivate me to stay in the school wellness game. When kids make presentations to school boards, start grab-n-go breakfast carts or plant school gardens, I believe that real change is possible.

Want more details FUEL Up to Play 60 plays or help in bringing the program to your school? Contact your state/regional dairy council and check the FUEL Up to Play 60 website.

Willowcreek Middle School, Lehi, Nevada, Goes BIG with FUTP60!

Willowcreek Middle School, Lehi, Utah, Goes BIG with FUTP60!

Eat. Play. Learn. E is for ENVIRONMENT

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

E is for ENVIRONMENT

In the school wellness ‘biz,’ we talk a lot about creating a healthy school environment. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that most of my professional work and a significant portion of my volunteer time has been devoted to promoting a culture of wellness in K-12 schools. A quote from the The Wellness Impact: Enhancing Academic Success through Healthy School Environments captures the key issues.

“… the vital importance of improved nutrition and increased physical activity in creating an environment that enriches students’ readiness to learn.”

So what exactly is a healthy school environment? How can you tell that you are in a healthy environment when you walk into a school? Actually, I think that you can see aspects of a healthy environment before you even get to a school building! Here are just a few of my favorite way to identify a school where students can be fit, well-nourished and ready to learn.

  • Students (and sometimes families) fill the sidewalks as they walk to school.
  1. School bike racks are full or overflowing (see photo below from Idaho middle school).
  2. Playgrounds and sports fields are full of children and adults playing together.
  3. Gardens have a prominent place on the school campus.
  4. Wonderful aromas of food cooking/baking/roasting waft through the hallways.
  5. Hallway walls have artwork, signs or markers to encourage physical activity.
  6. Banners or signs identify awards and recognition for nutrition and fitness.
  7. Breakfast is served in the classroom to every child who needs it.
  8. Food presentations are eye-appealing, colorful and customer-focused.
  9. Cafeteria is bright and cheerful; students socializing with inside voices.
  10. Adults are sitting and eating with children rather than patrolling the tables.
  11. Any snack food sales offer many options from MyPlate food groups.
  12. Fun after-school physical activities are available to children of all abilities.

These are just a few of my favorite things in a healthy school environment. What are yours?

Full Bike Racks at Heritage Middle School in Meridian Idaho

Full Bike Racks at Heritage Middle School in Meridian, Idaho

What’s the Real School Lunch News? 31+ Million American Children Get More Vegetables

What’s really sad about the recent article on the state of U.S. school lunch from the Fed Up campaign is that is so-five-years-ago. Using out-of-date statistics, misleading photos, and images that were not even from high schools, this campaign fails to expose the real truth about school lunch today – that it is awesome and kids are eating it up!

Personally, I’m fed-up with reports on school lunch that ignore the real revolution in cafeterias. Where have these school lunch critics been? Clearly not dining in the districts that are featuring produce from schools gardens – or doing farm-to-school, boat-to-school (in AK, OR and NH), and Montana’s recent beef-to-school campaign. What’s really happening in school lunch is that the nearly 32 million students who eat it daily are getting an incredible variety of often local, increasingly organic produce, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. According to the savvy school nutrition directors who observe their teen customers closely, they are eating it all up!!

Here’s a taste of what’s really happening with teens and school lunch in five Western districts of all sizes and demographics. It’s our first-in-a-series tour from coast-to-coast showcasing School Meals That Rock – today, with a special focus on teens and veggies.

In suburban Lake Stevens, Washington, Schools, just west of the Seattle, Calavero Mid-High piloted a “Build Your Own Salad Lunch” last spring and they now serve 65+ a day. They are expanding this concept to all middle/high schools in October: Students order a custom salad built from lean diced meats, shredded cheeses or seeds for protein, croutons or whole wheat bread-sticks for grain, and a colorful selection of fresh veggies (often local) and dried fruits.

Veggie toppings for a "Build Your Own Salad Lunch"

Lake Stevens veggie toppings for a “Build Your Own Salad Lunch”

Mixed salad lunch in a bowl

Lake Stevens customized salad lunch in a bowl

Down I-5, in Eugene, Oregon, Bethel School District, has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy, greens and much more show up on Bethel menus, in sandwiches and throughout variety bars (at least nine different vegetable choices daily at all grade levels).

Variety bar - at least nine veggie available daily

Willamette High School variety bar with regular farm to school options

Bethel Nutrition Services Summer Meal Program Sandwich

Bethel Nutrition Services Summer Meal Program Sandwich

In the Solvang, California, Viking Café, Chef Bethany Markee leads a real school food revolution, where they offer a made-from-scratch hot lunch along with grab-n-go options (entrée salads, wrap sandwiches or vegetarian cold items). Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

Solvang Grab-n-Go Salads

Solvang Grab-n-Go Salads

Solvang produce bar often features "rescued" veggies

Solvang produce bar often features “rescued” veggies

Across the mountains in the Provo, Utah, Schools, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant, have made a commitment to freshly prepared, locally sourced meals in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. They proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen, so that Provo students know where their food comes from – and taking a few extra seconds to make something look more appealing to the eye has made all the difference.

Provo Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Homemade Marinara

Provo Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Homemade Marinara

Provo Homemade Roast Pork and Mashed Potatoes

Provo Homemade Roast Pork and Mashed Potatoes

Up in Kalispell, Montana, Public Schools, another medium-sized district close to the Canadian border, Jennifer Montague agrees that presentation and freshness are the keys to getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables. She believes that young people are discerning customers and they will choose fruits and vegetables if they look appealing and taste good on a regular basis.

Kalispell Hummus Grab-n-Go Salad

Kalispell Hummus Grab-n-Go Salad

Kalispell Rainbow Grab-n-Go Salads

Kalispell Rainbow Grab-n-Go Salads

I am all for getting teens – and even younger students – activated to improve school meals. That’s exactly what the Fuel Up to Play 60 and Alliance for a Healthy Generation programs have been doing for years – with great success. In fact, we have reached the tipping point in school nutrition – and it’s time to use photos like these to inspire lagging districts to make changes.

If you really want to do something, there is no need to use old data and misleading photos. Let’s spend our time showcasing what’s possible and support all school nutrition professionals in serving meals they way districts like Lake Stevens, Bethel, Solvang, Provo and Kalispell are already doing. Jennifer Montague said it best: “If you build it well, they will eat it.”

Six Back-to-School Lunch Spots: Where I would take Julia Child for a bite (Part 1, Western states)

As a devoted fan of Julia Child since the days of the earliest days of The French Chef on black and white TV, I know that she was always a culinary and educational trendsetter. Back in 1995, she was a co-founder of Days of Taste®, a national discovery-based program of The American Institute of Wine & Food for 4th and 5th graders. “In this age of fast and frozen food, we want to teach school children about real food – where it is grown and how it is produced – so that they can develop an understanding and appreciation of how good food is supposed to taste.”

Last week was the 101st anniversary of Julia Child’s birth – an event that I always honor personally and professionally. As I was updating the daily entries on School Meals That Rock, I realized how much Julia Child would love to see the very real revolution that has take place in school meals. Fresh, local, lovingly prepared and beautifully served breakfasts, lunches, snacks and even suppers are served across the USA, not just in a few foodie enclaves like Portland (OR) and Berkeley (CA), but in a wide range of school nutrition programs with a real commitment to good food for hungry students.

If I could do some culinary time travel and take Julia to lunch, as Bob Spitz was lucky enough to do in Dearie, here are six school cafeteria hot spots we would hit in the Western states. These schools vary widely in location, demographics and staff training, but all have one thing in common: They are among the growing trend of districts dedicated to serving made-from-scratch food, supporting local farmers and ranchers, and teaching children how good food tastes.

Image

Lake Stevens, Washington, Mollie Langum, Nutrition Supervisor

Mollie and her staff are true farm-to-table champions, as showcased in their “I Made A Rainbow at the Salad Bar” event. Washington-grown produce is not just for special occasions though; it’s an every day item in Lake Stevens cafeterias (just east of the metro Seattle area). With the right kind of “peer pressure,” students help promote produce, with giant strawberry costumes and as 5th grade fruit/veggie ambassadors.

ImageBethel, Oregon, Jennie Kolpak, RD, Nutrition Supervisor

Down I 5, in Eugene, Oregon, Jennie has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy and more show up on Bethel menus. This made-to-order Willamette High School panini with balsamic marinated veggies is just one delicious example. This year, they are going “hyper-local” with a new commercial size greenhouse on school grounds.

ImageSolvang, California, Chef Bethany Markee, Viking Café

Trading fine dining for a cafeteria, Bethany leads a Central California school food revolution – as this Honey Roasted Organic Fennel for the salad bar clearly shows. Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

ImageChandler, Arizona, Catherine Giza, Director and Wes Delbridge, RD, Supervisor

I bet Julia would appreciate the high-tech side of this large multi-cultural district with its trend-setting iPhone app. And, I know that she would be equally impressed with their personal touch on the 250 hand-tossed pizzas with whole grain, made-from-scratch dough and homemade marinara sauce!

ImageProvo, Utah, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant

Breakfast or lunch, Provo’s cafeterias serve freshly prepared, locally sourced meals to the lucky students in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. The school nutrition professionals in each school take justifiable pride in their award-winning program and the Facebook page proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen. Provo students know where their food comes from!

ImageEnnis, Montana, Tammy Wham, Director and Natasha Hegmann, FoodCorps

It might take us a bit longer to get to Ennis, a southwestern Montana community of less than 1,000 with about 400 students K-12. However, I can guarantee that it would be worth the drive! Tammy and her cooks make nearly everything from scratch and thanks to Montana FoodCorps they now have a greenhouse and school garden (with club and summer camp) for incredible, edible produce year-round!

True School Nutrition HEROES: Excellence Beyond the Regulations

There’s been lots of talk recently about how The School Day Just Got Healthier with USDA’s Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs that went into effect on July 1, 2012. Media stories abound with a generally positive tone – although many reporters wonder if students will actually eat the healthier options. I wrote about the new guidelines right here on August 24 in USDA New-trition Guidelines for School Meals: Business as usual – and a whole new ballgame.

Fortunately for students, teachers, families, farmers and ranchers, some of the best news in school nutrition has nothing to do with the regulations! Incredibly positive things are happening in kitchens, cafeterias, and schoolyards from coast-to-coast – thanks to dedicated and visionary school nutrition heroes. Sometimes they make the headlines, but often as not, they labor quietly in their districts without attracting much fanfare or hoopla.
Here’s a taste of truly delicious news from four districts on the frontiers of school nutrition excellence. Literally spread from coast-to-coast, these districts are focused on serving the freshest, best tasting meals to students in the most positive, pleasant atmosphere possible. This is what we need — to get nutrient-rich food into kids; it is only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink it!

More school cafeteria makeovers

The typical noisy school cafeteria – with an “eat it and beat it” environment – is not conducive to trying new foods or enjoying a balanced meal. Cafeteria renovations, like those in Palm Beach County, Florida, often focus on creating a trendy café atmosphere. At McKay Elementary School in Beaverton, Oregon – with support from anOregon Dairy Council Fuel Up To Play 60 grant, the school nutrition program went a step farther, making their cafeteria decorations match their nutrition marketing and education efforts, to help students “Eat a Rainbow.”

More school garden produce served in cafeterias

In some areas, school gardens are becoming almost the norm. New Jersey could be called the “School Garden State” with more than 242 schools growing vegetables and fruits for nutrition and/or education. Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, with support from urban agricultural groups, has taken school gardening to a whole new level. As recently announced on their Facebook page: “I am extremely proud to announce our 2012 Garden To Cafeteria schools! DPS Food and Nutrition Services will be purchasing produce from the 21 school gardens listed. Your students will then see that produce in their lunchroom salad bars! “ Now that is hyper-local!
 
More chefs in school kitchens

Thanks to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, Chefs Move to Schools, founded in May 2010, has meant a real upgrade in the culinary skills of school nutrition professionals. Chefs provide culinary boot camps for school cooks in several states and encourage “junior chefs” through many school assembly programs, like the one with Chef Virginia Willis in Marietta, Georgia. In Maplewood Richmond Heights School District (MO), Chef Robert Rusan has truly set a higher bar for school food. It’s hard to describe the comprehensiveness of the MRHS Healthy Foods program in a short paragraph. Just imagine a school nutrition program that makes its own fresh mozzarella cheese, builds an outdoor pizza oven, and harvests aqua-ponic lettuce.

More student involvement in school nutrition

While all the schools described so far involved students to some degree, Slater Jr. High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and Foodservice Director Solange Morrisette, have kicked it up a notch with their Fruit and Vegetable Ambassador program. According to the USDA blog post, “the students came up with several fun ways to get their peers excited about eating fruits and vegetables. These ideas included the fruit and veggie taste testing, a fruit and veggie eating contest, a cafeteria remodel, and creating rap songs about healthy eating.” In this photo, guest farmer Shelly Pezza taught the future ambassadors about the benefits of eating local produce – which will soon show up on their salad bars.
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD (Registered Dietitian), is Past-Chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group (DPG) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She helps agencies and organizations create healthier school environments across the country. You can follow her onFacebook and Twitter, and read in-depth analysis of school issues on her blog School Meals That Rock.