Introducing Schools and Students to Healthier Options

A passionate advocate for healthier foods in his district and beyond, Sal Valenza, food service director for West New York School District has used a variety of innovative techniques to introduce schools and students to the healthier options available.

Several years ago, Valenza hosted a Healthier Food Fair to bring vendors together to demonstrate the availability of healthier school food options to the broader school community in advance of the proposed changes. The fair was open to school wellness council members, food service directors and other stakeholders from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and held at West New York Middle School. Valenza’s goal was to spread the word about healthier options provided by the vendors and to create a networking opportunity for schools and districts.

Valenza encouraged others to use the Healthier Food Fair to find products that complied with national standards to fill their schools’ vending machines, à la carte lines and to round out school meals. “This was a venue to share with our community and other districts and schools that the healthy products are out there and the vendors are supportive,” he said. Participants also sampled a variety of foods including fruit-based muffins, organic meats, non-par fried potato products, packaged and naturally flavored apple slices and sparkling juices.

In his own district, Valenza was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant to introduce students to new varieties of fresh produce. Teachers didn’t see the healthy snacks as taking away from instruction time; instead they found ways to build curriculum around them such as having students count the seeds on their strawberries.

The district also added harvest bars in six of its schools where students can serve themselves beets, field greens, and chickpea-cucumber salad. The bars tripled students’ lunchroom fruit and vegetable consumption in the first year. “The choices on the harvest bar empower the students because it gives them ownership of their food,” said Valenza.