green brook, NJ schools undergo a healthy makeover!

Green Brook, NJ Schools Undergo A Healthy Makeover!

Wed 27 Oct 2010

Story by Lauren Harris-Pincus
 

Our kids are becoming ill. And I don't mean with the flu…I mean unhealthy. Poor diets, TV, video games, and lack of exercise, all contribute to obesity. Unfortunately, obesity often brings early diabetes and other ailments not historically observed in children.

As a Registered Dietitian and mother of two, I was asked to participate on my local school system's newly formed Nutrition Committee. The committee meets monthly and is comprised of the Superintendant, the Director of Food Services, two principals, teachers, school nurses, and a handful of dedicated parents. Our mission is simple: Improve the overall health of our community starting with our children.

My first task was to assess the Body Mass Index (BMI) of each 2nd and 3rd grader in our small suburban town of two schools. What a shock. 35% of our precious little ones were already overweight or obese! This prompted us to spring into action.

Armed with this data, the Committee needed to assess the parents' receptiveness to changes in the food offerings. So we prepared and sent an electronic 12 question survey to all families in the district of approximately 1000 children. We used a website called www.surveyMonkey.com to create the survey, and it included questions about lunch buying habits, and what parents packed for their kids when they were bringing lunch to school. The survey also asked why parents chose to allow or disallow their kids to buy lunch, and what would alter their decision. With 131 responses representing 17% of the children, we were delighted to learn that more parents would allow their children to buy school lunch if the food was healthier.

Suddenly, this past summer was filled with sweeping changes designed to enhance our cafeteria service. The Nutrition Committee held several meetings to discuss our plan of attack. We provided our food service company with a "wish list" of easy to implement improvements which allowed a smooth transition to our more nutritious food items. A letter was sent out to parents to inform them of the upcoming innovations.

September arrived, and the schools' cafeterias were transformed. Most of the "white" starches have been converted to whole grains including the breads, wraps and pasta. Even the pancakes and French toast sticks are now whole grain! Only 1% or skim milk is available. A broader variety of fruits and veggies are offered in child friendly, cut-up portions. Both fried foods and high fat cookies are only offered two days per week instead of every day. All this positive change at no additional student cost.

And there's more! A recent Board of Education policy has eliminated all food from classroom birthday celebrations. Instead, children are encouraged to bring in a non-food "goody bag" for each of their classmates, or share in a story or craft. In addition, classroom Holiday parties are being celebrated with fruits and veggies or cheese and crackers instead of cupcakes and candy or chips and dip. These policies were designed to encourage healthier food choices and to protect those children with severe food allergies.

This year's Back-to-School night kicked off our Back-to-Health initiative. The cafeterias were opened so parents could visualize where their children eat, and could ask questions of the staff. We provided an abundance of health information, coupons, and free samples of healthier food products. With donated prizes of personal training sessions, nutrition consultations, gym memberships, and other "health promoting" items, we held a raffle to support the Committee's initiatives. A piece of fruit given to each raffle ticket purchaser was met with a smile.

So what's next? Our aspirations are high, and our plans are grand. A school garden is in the works, and after-school walking and running programs are being offered free of charge. The Physical Education department has joined the effort by encouraging upper body strength exercises, a known deficit for American children. A monthly nutrition newsletter is distributed to the district with healthy lifestyle pointers and recipes. This school year includes plans for health and nutrition fairs, as well as other nutrition related assemblies for students. Future taste tests with the children are planned to create the yummiest and healthiest alternatives.

These changes are new and it will take time to assess their impact. The committee is developing a strategy to monitor acceptance of the programs, as well as creating objective metrics to measure progress.

Health of the mind and body are of equal importance, and we want our schools to nourish them both.

About the author: Lauren Harris-Pincus MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and co-founder of www.NutritionBabes.com.

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