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Team Up for Success! USDA and Partners Help Secure a Healthier School Day

With kids now back in the classroom, USDA wants to help schools continue to build a healthier, more nutritious environment for their students.  At the same time, we’re deeply committed to ensuring these same schools maintain financial stability and strong student participation in their meal programs.  We’re seeing more and more schools move forward with new and innovative healthy school meals, but we also understand there is a need to share best practices across the country.

Thanks to our partners at the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), we hope to fill that void.  To make this a reality, the group will pilot the Team Up For Success Training Initiative with the assistance of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Southeast Regional Office.  Together, they’ll work with school food authorities (SFAs) to identify challenges and provide nuanced resources to promote a healthier school day.

Durfee Students Learn Healthy Habits in the Garden, Classroom, and Cafeteria

Today’s Cafeteria Stories contribution comes from Dr. Robert Lewis of the El Monte School District in Southern California.  Dr. Lewis describes the success that his urban school district has had with school gardening, and how gardening helps to transform the food culture among students who were previously unaware of the origins of food.  His district is making great strides in improving the school nutrition environment, thanks in part to support from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

By: Dr. Robert Lewis, Director of Nutrition Services, El Monte School District

The majority of the more than 1,000 students that attend Durfee School—part of El Monte School District, east of Los Angeles, California—have lived their entire lives in urban neighborhoods without access to farms or fields. It’s ironic that our school is named after James R. Durfee, a rancher and farmer who grew vegetables, grain, walnuts, and fruit. But until several years ago, Durfee students didn’t know where food came from, aside from the supermarket or the corner store.

When we joined the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and decided to improve the healthfulness of the food we serve to our students, we started by getting our hands dirty. As the director of nutrition services for El Monte School District I knew that kids are more likely to try new foods if they are involved in the process and learn why it is important. I invited local farmers to school to plant seedlings with the students. Once kids saw how broccoli or red cabbage grows, you can bet they wanted to taste them both in the garden and in the cafeteria.

Back-to-School and On a Mission to Spread Health

Today’s guest post in our Cafeteria Stories series comes from Sharon Foster, a physical education teacher dedicated to paving a path of success for her students.  Ms. Foster describes the importance of a healthy school nutrition environment, as well as involving students in the change process (something I wholeheartedly support!).  Due to her motivation and successes, Ms. Foster now serves as an ambassador for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

By Sharon Foster, Physical Education Teacher at James Bowie Elementary School

As students at James Bowie Elementary School head back to school this fall, I feel good about the fact we are providing healthy meals, drinks, and snacks at school because I know we’re helping our students build strong minds and bodies.

It wasn’t always that way at our school. Before we started our journey by joining the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program, our students were snacking on salty foods and sugary drinks outside the cafeteria and were not ready to learn when they came to class.

Chicago Charter School Focuses on Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds

As part of our Cafeteria Stories series, Allison Slade, Founder and Executive Director of the Namaste Charter School in Chicago, shares thoughts on why good nutrition is an integral component of a child’s education.  She credits the academic achievements of Namaste’s students not only to the academic structure itself, but also to the fresh, healthy meals that are a pillar of the school’s structure.  Thank you, Allison, for sharing your story.

Guest Blog By: Allison Slade, Founder and Executive Director of Namaste Charter School

I’ve worn many hats in many schools—I have been a Teach for America Corps member, a Kindergarten teacher, a mentor, a curriculum designer, a literacy specialist, and now at Namaste Charter School, a Founder and Executive Director. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of reasons why schools should or should not make their students’ health a priority on campus.

When I was a teacher, I watched my students come to school with orange fingers from their cheesy snack food breakfast. By 10:00 a.m., my students were crashing; they couldn’t focus and they certainly couldn’t reach their highest potential, which is every teacher’s mission.

Studies Find Widespread Student Acceptance of New Healthier School Lunches

With nearly 31 million students now participating in the National School Lunch Program each day, sound nutrition at school plays an essential role in supporting a healthier next generation.  But when the new standards were developed by pediatricians and other child nutrition experts, USDA was also looking for students to enjoy the healthier offerings they receive.

And according to a new report, the majority of our nation’s children are accepting these new school meals.  This great news is part of a just-released study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that finds 70 percent of elementary school leaders nationwide reported that students like the healthier school lunches that rolled out in fall 2012.  Other highlights of the research include:

The Power of Partnerships

In today’s post, Amy Myrdal Miller describes an array of activities being implemented by the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), as part of their broad commitment to child nutrition.  I have had the opportunity to participate in some of the CIA’s school nutrition events over the past few years and can attest to the quality of presentations and excitement of the audience.

On the Road to the School Nutrition Association Conference

Next week, I, along with dozens of staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have the pleasure of joining thousands of school nutrition professionals, members of the public health community, and food industry representatives in Boston at the 68th Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA).  This annual event provides an opportunity for stakeholders in the school nutrition community to network, gain ideas, and learn from one another.

As a past president of SNA myself, I look forward to this meeting each year.  Being surrounded by dedicated nutrition professionals who all want to make sure we are providing the best possible support to our nation’s children, and hearing about all the creative approaches schools are using to successfully serve healthy school meals is quite a treat.  I am excited to be able to meet with members of the community one-on-one, and hear firsthand about their successes, as well as their challenges.  I also look forward to speaking to the larger audience during the second general session on Tuesday.  My USDA colleagues will be on-hand throughout the conference to gather more feedback and provide additional information, technical assistance and other support to school nutrition professionals.

Education Support Professionals - Partners in School Nutrition

The USDA school meals programs serve well over 30 million students per day, nationwide.  We rely on our partners in the education realm to help us ensure that these programs—not only programs of great magnitude, but also of great public health importance—are implemented appropriately so that children are healthy and ready to learn.  This week’s guest blog from the National Education Association is a testament to their members’ commitment to student health, and the important role that school nutrition plays.

By Roxanne Dove, Director, National Education Association, Education Support Professionals Quality

The nearly half-million Education Support Professionals (ESPs) who are members of the National Education Association play vital roles in helping to create great public schools for our students. ESPs work as bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, classroom paraeducators, food service staff, and in many other jobs as part of a unified education workforce that helps ensure that children are safe, healthy, well-nourished, and well-educated.

As readers of this blog may know, our country’s youth are facing twin crises of obesity and food insecurity -- limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods. Nearly one in three American children are overweight or obese (White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity: Report to the President, 2010) while 16 million face food insecurity (USDA Economic Research Service, 2013).  In a sad irony, food insecurity leads to both hunger and obesity. Because they lack access to or can’t afford healthier food, food insecure families may be forced to choose inexpensive, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods.

Creating a Healthier Next Generation and Supporting a Healthier School Day

Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, students across America are being served meals with more fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy.  Parents can send their kids to school knowing that the healthy habits they teach at home are being reinforced at school, with breakfast and lunch menus that provide more of the foods we should eat, and less of the foods that we should avoid.

Parents, teachers, school nutrition professionals, communities, and policy makers are working hard to make sure that school environments support a healthier next generation.

USDA Relies on Feedback to Help Schools, Children Adapt to New Meal Standards

As many schools wind down for the year, USDA is gearing up for exciting new improvements designed to make the 2014-2015 school year even healthier for our nation’s future leaders.  It’s a commitment rooted in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  In that legislation, USDA is directed to update the school meals to reflect the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The new school meal requirements are intended to ensure children get the nutrition they need for academic performance and overall health.  That’s a mission USDA takes seriously. Feeding kids, and feeding them well, can be a challenge.  I understand that as a former school nutrition director, mother, and now grandmother.   Plus, we know that change, in general, can be difficult. That is why we are working closely with schools to make sure the transition to the updated standards runs as smoothly as possible.  We are listening to what school nutritional professionals, teachers, parents and students are telling us.  These partners are the heart and soul of the school community and we have provided flexibilities based on their important feedback.