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Sycamore Community Schools Pave the Way

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 Sycamore Community Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, 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.

Jessica Johnson, RD became District Leader and Food Service Director for Sycamore Community Schools in 2011. She sees firsthand the benefit of the changes schools are making to their food offerings—and a few of the barriers, too. “This biggest challenge, I would say, with the new meal pattern, for us is really just reassessing our menu and trying to find new ways of being exciting and creative,” she said. “It’s really just grasping what excites the kids, what makes them eager to try something new.”

A recipe for improvement

Sycamore Community Schools is committed to helping its diverse students reach their full potential, both inside and outside of the classroom. However, bringing everyone together to focus on school health was not an easy task. The district’s 5,500 students hail from more than 40 countries and speak 30 languages.

Johnson credits the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program Framework of Best Practices with helping the school’s parents, teachers, and administrators work together towards common goals. “Everyone that came to the wellness committee meetings had their own agenda and [the Framework] really allowed us to look at ourselves as a whole and celebrate where we are today before we get bogged down with what our desires are.” The group was then able to set one, three, and five year goals. “It’s really helped us all get all on the same page and all act as a team,” she said.

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

  • Engage students as ambassadors for healthy change. Johnson created a student health council where she held focus groups to sample new foods and weigh in on menu changes. She said, “After they liked something, their only “homework” was to be an ambassador for that item. I had them give a stamp of approval that we hung up in the cafeteria and said: This has the student health council’s stamp of approval. Give it a try!”
  • Give students choices. “Overall, we’ve found through student focus groups that they like a lot of variety and like when they can build things that make it their own,” said Johnson. “We’re trying to make it more customized to what that student enjoys.”
  • Emphasize what’s new and different. Instead of highlighting that some items were no longer available, Johnson focused on marketing new options to students. “Don’t put up signs up that say: We no longer have French fries every day. Focus on: Wow, we now have a fruit and vegetable bar every day!” she said.
  • Know your audience. Johnson realized that she needed to start communicating about the changes to school food with students and parents on channels that they most connect with. “Being involved with social media helped—I post things on Facebook and on our Twitter feed,” she said. “I also try to reach out to the student newspaper anytime we’re going to be doing a special.”
  • Celebrate your success. During the 2013–2014 school year, all seven Sycamore Community Schools earned the Bronze National Recognition Award from the Alliance. “We’re really proud of that!” said Johnson. “I think that’s going to help our marketing to say: We’re the first entire district in Ohio to be recognized.”

A snapshot of success at Sycamore

Even with all the changes Sycamore has made to its food options, Johnson has not seen a significant drop in revenue. She credits her success with being heavily involved in the program’s financials. “I don’t put anything on the menu that doesn’t meet the budget,” she said. Her vendors have also been critical to her program’s fiscal success: “I think that they’ve done a tremendous job. I’ve been contacted by numerous vendors that have emailed me information or sent me packets of information about competitive foods. They already have all the nutritional information and are taking a lot of the work out of my hands.”

Nor has Johnson received heavy pushback from students as she replaced less healthy options at school. Her involvement with the student health committee and her clear communication to both parents and students helped pave the way for the acceptance of healthier options. Everyone understands the need for students to have access to healthier foods during the school day so that they develop healthy, lifelong habits. “You want to teach them to make good choices so that they also make good choices when you’re not around. That’s what we want—lifelong learning on how to eat healthy,” she said.

One of Johnson’s favorite memories from her tenure at Sycamore was getting to watch her students take part in a debate. The topic: Whether or not the USDA should have a say about what is sold in the cafeteria and vending machines. “It was very humbling,” she said. “They said that they see the value in having a healthy lunch program and they see it as necessary for a positive learning environment.”

Read more about Sycamore Junior High’s success.

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