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Participation Soars with Education and Enthusiasm

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Aside from home, kids spend most of their time at school where they consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories.

Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to encourage schools to serve nutritious foods and drinks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs and for food and drinks sold to students in snack bars, vending machines, and à la carte cafeteria lines. As a result, more schools across America now offer healthier snacks and beverages, contributing to students’ wellbeing and academic success.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, and we’ve found that thousands of schools, such as RSU #14-Windham Raymond School District in Windham, Maine, are successfully implementing the standards.

Healthy changes that work

The school nutrition program at Windham Raymond schools extends far beyond serving healthy food to the district’s 3,300 students. Food Service Director Jeanne Reilly, Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro and Health Education Teacher Eliza Adams form a close-knit group that ensures their students learn not only that healthy food tastes good, but also that it’s important to fuel young bodies properly to reach their full potential.

"This is the fifth year that we have been following the standards and our participation for middle and high school students is up 20 percent!"

- Jeanne Reilly, Food Service Director

Adams starts in the classroom where all students receive nutrition education in grades 6-8. Students learn about creating balanced meals using MyPlate. They analyze their diets and deconstruct dishes that contain multiple food groups. Cowens-Gasbarro (known as Chef Sam) compliments the lessons by sampling new foods in the classroom. In one lesson, students try to identify whether they’re eating red, yellow, or green peppers with their eyes closed. In another, they compare taste and nutritional content between a common processed food and a made from-scratch version.

Cowens-Gasbarro and Adams’s efforts culminate in the cafeteria where students are faced with making their own food choices. “Before we try a new menu item, Chef Sam lets kids taste it in the classroom and the cafeteria where they can share their opinions,” said Adams. Cowens-Gasbarro also leads a salad bar training where students learn how to use tongs appropriately and measure portion sizes to create fresh, colorful salads that won’t end up in trashcans. Reilly added, “Educating the students really helped a lot. Just having somebody give the students an ear made them feel better about the changes.”

Reilly ensures that food served in the cafeteria meets federal standards, while maintaining its tasty, kid-friendly appeal. She gives credit to her staff’s enthusiasm and creativity. During the month of March, students try a new fruit or vegetable that starts with each letter of the alphabet from arugula to zucchini (with the exception of quinoa for the letter “Q”). “Our students are embracing it,” said Reilly. “It’s about finding the right product, the right recipes, and training your staff about how to use the products. It’s worked for us.”

Investments in nutrition yield big returns

The proof is in the participation numbers. “This is the fifth year that we have been following the standards and our participation for middle and high school students is up 30 percent!” said Adams. “One reason is that we’re taking care of the education piece, but the other is that we just serve fabulous food.”

District administrators are seeing big results from their holistic approach. The district was one of five in Maine identified as “high-performing,” meaning that students were making exceptional academic gains given the amount of money spent per pupil and their socioeconomics.

“By approaching prevention on so many fronts, our students are happier, they’re safer, and they perform better in school,” said Adams. “When we’re taking care of kids, they learn better, they have fewer disciplinary issues, and it’s a better place for both the kids and teachers.”

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