My name is Jennifer Velez and I am from St. Petersburg, Florida. I’ve been an elementary school P.E. teacher for 12 years and 10 of those years have been at John M. Sexton Elementary School. When I first began teaching at Sexton, I was asked if I wanted to be the wellness coordinator for our staff, called the Wellness Champ in our school district.
I decided right away that Sexton needed to be part of the Healthy Schools Program. After registering online in August of 2009, I completed the Inventory and found that we were lacking in most areas, but the biggest changes needed to happen in our cafeteria.
We were making a portion of the money needed to pay our cafeteria workers off of the a la carte items kids could purchase in addition to their school lunch. Several of these items did not meet the nutrition standards followed by the Alliance, and I’d often walk through the cafeteria during lunch and witness kids eating ice cream while their school lunch went untouched..
Although I had the complete support of my principal, Beth Bates, our cafeteria manager, was skeptical and understandably worried about losing revenue which could lead to her employees losing their jobs.
Once we discussed healthier alternatives for the a la carte menu and the items were purchased, Beth made a brave decision to go cold turkey and start selling only items that met the Alliance’s nutritional guidelines. We did taste tests and surveyed students to see what the kids liked and didn’t like. After the first month with the new items we were ecstatic to see that we hadn’t lost any money! And the best part, the kids loved the new choices!
We then had to make some changes in our way of thinking about school celebrations and rewarding students. Our old policy allowed birthday cakes and cupcakes to be delivered on student birthdays as well as junk food parties for nearly every holiday and class achievement.
Under our principal’s and district leadership, we changed the policy to just two celebrations involving treats per year in the classroom and the rest had to be healthy food or non-food celebrations.
To help make the transition, I provided ideas for physical activity related rewards and also healthier food party ideas such as a yogurt bar or make your own fruit salad buffet.
The message was relayed to parents in the students’ agendas and parents were also provided with suggested healthy snack ideas and alternative birthday celebration ideas. We were confronted with a few parents who were upset that they couldn’t bring their child cupcakes on their birthday, but they quickly came around and most appreciated the reason behind the change. All schools in the district now follow this practice as part of the district’s wellness policy.
Once we had the changes in place, it was time to apply for recognition. We waited until the last possible day to turn it in our application (I do not recommend waiting), but in just a few short weeks we received the news that we had gotten the Bronze National Recognition Award!
That summer in 2010, I was fortunate to be able to go to New York City and accept Sexton’s first National Recognition Award at the Healthy Schools Program Forum. It was an amazing experience and I learned so much while I was there. I came back to Sexton empowered and ready to go for Silver!