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Seeds of Change in Jackson, Tennessee

School food changes course

In 2010 Congress passed the Hunger-Free Kids Act to ensure that students in America’s schools have access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults. The law addressed both foods served as part of the National School Lunch Program, and foods sold throughout the school building, such as in school stores, during in-school fundraisers, and in vending machines (often called competitive foods).

During the 2012–2013 school year, schools across the country aligned their school meals with new federal standards to ensure kids are being fed healthy food at school. And as a result of the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards that went into effect July 1 for the 2014–15 school year, more schools across America will be offering healthier snacks and beverages.

Many schools participating in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, such as Jackson-Madison County School System (JMCSS) in Jackson, Tennessee, have already moved to more nutritious snacks and drinks—and found that students will buy and eat healthier foods and beverages. In fact, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, which helped inform USDA’s updated standards.

Susan Johnson is the School Nutrition Director of JMCSS schools. The district began implementing healthier food options several years ago in conjunction with a state law passed in 2008 that set minimal nutrition standards for nutritional content of food offered to kids in grades PreK‒8. Jackson-Madison Schools then joined the Healthy Schools Program during the 2009‒2010 school year, taking their efforts to new heights.

A recipe for improvement

The staff at Jackson-Madison County Schools are committed to fostering a healthy learning environment for all of their nearly 13,000 students, more than three-fourths of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. All 27 schools in the district are enrolled in the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and more than half have been nationally recognized by the Alliance. They have made significant changes to the healthfulness of the foods available to students by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, eliminating deep fat fryers, and adding more whole grain options to meet or exceed national nutrition standards.

Johnson’s efforts have attracted state and national recognition. The JMCSS School Nutrition Department has won USDA Best Practice Awards five years in a row: For increasing school breakfast participation (2010, 2011), for their original Healthy Café Concept (2012), for their Farm to Tray program (2013), and for increasing student consumption of fruits and vegetables (2014)! The JMCSS Farm to Tray program also won the Tennessee School Board Association Award for Excellence in 2012, and the Tennessee Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award in 2014. And JMCSS’s Beech Bluff Elementary earned the Silver National Recognition Award from the Alliance for the 2013‒2014 school year.

Johnson shared her tips for making award-winning healthy changes in the school environment:

  • If it’s important, you can find a way. When Johnson first started working with the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program, she learned that while her schools had made significant progress, there were still opportunities for improvement. “The Alliance calls for whole fruit instead of juice at breakfast so we started making that change,” she said. “We saw the value of participating and helping our schools earn the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program National Recognition Award. We made a menu adjustment that was going to negatively impact our budget—but would make a positive impact on our students. We changed our budget and went for it!”
  • Grow your own food. To become involved with the Local Foods for Local Schools Movement and to serve the freshest food available, Johnson contacted Teresa Crouse, the Career and Technology Education teacher at Liberty Tech High School Green House. With one phone call the JMCSS “Farm to Tray” Partnership was formed and quickly became an award winning program. Last year alone, students grew 2,664 heads of Bibb lettuce, 573 pounds of cucumbers, and 695 pounds of tomatoes for Liberty Tech and five other cafeterias in the school system.
  • Partnerships can multiply success. Johnson believes that her work with the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and Coordinated School Health (CSH) has contributed to her program’s success. “The nutrition education that our students receive through the Alliances’ Healthy Schools Program has helped prepare our students for the required menu pattern changes. We began making the required changes earlier than what was required and our student lunch participation has remained stable,” she said. “Our breakfast participation is soaring due to our Breakfast in the Classroom Program and the assistance from the Alliance. The recognition that our School Nutrition Program has received through the Alliance has made our community aware of our efforts and the reason for the nutrition changes.”
  • Use all tools available. Particularly, Johnson found the Alliance Smart Snacks Product Calculator to be helpful when identifying snacks that comply with the new USDA standards. “Our schools have been offering healthier vending items for several years, but we are taking another look at the items due to the new regulations. The Alliance’s Smart Snacks Product Calculator has been a quick and reliable way for us to evaluate the snacks.”

A snapshot of success at Jackson-Madison

The USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) and the “Teens Teaching Tots” program has helped increase the student consumption of fruits and vegetables by 22 percent over the last three years. Seven of Jackson-Madison’s 27 schools currently have FFVP program awards, while “Teens Teaching Tots” is a successful practice that developed from the School Nutrition Department and Liberty Tech High School’s Farm to Tray Partnership. Students at Liberty Tech take fresh produce from the green house to elementary schools enrolled in the FFVP. The teens teach nutrition lessons while the younger students build and eat salads with their fresh-grown lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Despite the numerous awards her program has received, Johnson says: “The greatest measure of success is the positive feedback that I hear from parents and students. Parents have commented that the FFVP is one of the best programs that we have ever implemented. In the grocery store their children see fresh strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and ask for those instead of sugary snacks. Numerous parents tell me that when they enter the fresh produce aisle their child starts pointing and saying we had those at school. They were so good.”

Read more about the changes happening in the Jackson-Madison County School System here and here.

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