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District Takes Advantage of “Roadmap” for Healthier Snacks

When Jacob Weirs left his physical education teaching job in Fulton County to become the district wellness coordinator in Hall County, he decided to take the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program with him. “I wanted the Alliance to be Hall County’s foundation for healthy changes,” he said. In 2011 Weirs recruited 25 schools in Hall County to join the Healthy Schools Program, and the schools got to work with the goal of becoming healthier places for students and staff.

“The way the Alliance does it is right on,” explained Weirs. “We didn’t have any health efforts in place at the time, and we needed to know what a healthy school should look like. The Alliance gave us the road map, the tools and the recognition. They helped us identify where we were currently, where we were we going and what incentives we needed to get there. The Alliance made it so easy.”

The Need

For Weirs, who was named a Healthy Schools Program National Ambassador for his efforts in Fulton County, the biggest challenge in the first year of his new role in Hall County was getting sports drinks out of the elementary schools. The schools were reluctant to switch to water only, assuming it would impact sales.

The Solution

Weirs found seven schools that were willing to pilot the switch, while the rest watched. He asked them to switch for one month and then to report back. “Some schools didn’t see a dip and others decided they didn’t need that revenue stream because of other, healthier fundraisers, such as fun runs.” Eventually the rest realized it wasn’t a big deal, and they made the switch.

During the next year Weirs encouraged the schools to think about classroom celebrations. Spout Springs Elementary school offered to test the water. Bracing for parent push-back, the school sent home what they now refer to as the “cupcake letter.” It outlined the new policy that said outside food was only going to be allowed in for two parties a year. “We had more parents thanking us than pushing back,” he said.

Then Weirs turned to the a la carte ice cream sales in the cafeteria. Although there were principals concerned about losing the revenue, he found two schools willing to try it out.  They contacted the vendor and asked for the nutritional information for all possible products. Then he used the Alliance’s Product Calculator and found four new options that were compliant and seemed attractive. “That turned out to be an easy switch,” he said.

Spout Springs Elementary has become what Jake calls “the model for a healthy school.” Teacher Tom Adams is leading the effort to become the first school in the South to receive the Gold National Recognition Award from the Alliance this year. In order to reach that level they needed to address food marketing in the school. Although they only sell water, the machine has a soda logo on it. The school also has a freezer in the cafeteria that holds the healthier items but has less healthy items pictured on the outside. They are working with the companies to switch the machines, but in the meantime they are covering them with paper and are encouraging students to pledge to drink more water and to be more physically active.

The Outcome

Although he hasn’t been able to convince all schools in the district to make these changes yet, he believes that the ones that have been willing to make these changes have shown others that it can be done. He believes there is now more support at the district level for passing stronger policies that will reach all schools. And he believes that the new federal Smart Snack guidelines will help principals make these changes without opening themselves up for complaints.

Some middle schools are starting to work on changing options in the school stores now. Weirs offered to help East Hall Middle School make the switch by using grant funding to purchase all of the healthy foods for them upfront. “I made it instantly profitable for them so they had nothing to lose,” he said. Weirs said that the students do buy the healthier items. “I bought them 450 bottles of water and they sold out by 10 a.m. The healthier pretzels? Sold out. They had to call me and ask for more. Students will buy what is there!”

The hardest part has been finding the products to purchase from the local stores as he is not able to purchase items through the food service contract. He hopes that the Smart Snack guidelines will help increase variety and availability of healthy snacks. 

Jacob’s Recipe for Success:

1)      Try to find items that you can sell for a higher profit margin.

2)      Don’t present a problem without the solution. Make it easy by telling them exactly what to buy, give them a sample letter to send home to parents, show examples of healthier fundraisers that other schools have used, etc.

3)      Listen to people’s concerns, and then ask for a chance to prove them wrong!