Mike Chapin is director of community relations for West Aurora School District 129.
Years ago, a pre-school principal shared with me the importance of a program that taught first-time parents how to care for infants and toddlers. “Was this really necessary?” I asked. She responded affirmatively with the frightening example of a teen-aged mother’s decision to save money by cutting her infant’s baby formula in half with water. The baby appeared to be satiated, but in fact was receiving only half of the nutrients needed for normal mental and physical development. The mother unwittingly was starving her child!
Today, many parents apparently still do not have a good understanding of the role nutrition plays in a child’s health. While hunger is still a pressing issue, ironically, national studies show that one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for a variety of health complications and chronic diseases, including heart disease, gallbladder disease, asthma, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, according to former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.
Congress responded to these concerns with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that mandated healthy changes in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. These include:
• Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week.
• Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods.
• Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties.
• Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size.
• Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
A sizeable number of children in our nation receive as much as 70 percent of their daily caloric intake at school, so this is an obvious place to tackle the issue. The bonus, of course, is the positive impact on learning. “Proper nutrition and physical fitness are essential for optimal learning,” said Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery J. Chico last year. “Good school nutrition and healthy practices are more important than ever as schools feed more children through the National School Lunch Program…”
West Aurora students learn about nutrition in health and physical education classes. Also, the district shares healthy eating suggestions with staff through its wellness program. In the school cafeterias, however, school districts often find that the subtle approach is often more successful in developing student acceptance of nutritional meals.
“I think our goal in some of this change is not to make too big a deal about it,” says Tessa Adcock, a registered dietician who is the food service director for Arbor Management here in the 13,000-student West Aurora School District 129. “I think there is a fine line about being overt about what the changes are and just letting them happen. We have seen great acceptance with the specific changes that have been made with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”
Nevertheless, the food service firm is communicating nutrition information to parents of younger students. Every elementary student in the district receives a copy of the monthly menu to take home. On the March menu were Arbor’s “A+ Nutritional Standards:
• Cage-free, hormone free, steroids-free, grain-fed chicken
• Never “pink slime”
• Only hormone-free milk; fat free or 1%
• Whole grain rich products every day
• Baked instead of deep-fried
• Minimal saturated fat, added sugars, artificial ingredients, and sodium whenever possible.”
All school menus also are available online, where parents and students receive additional meal information, including calories, fat, cholesterol, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C.
Then bringing the nutrition discussion directly into the home kitchen, the District 129 menu suggests in large bold type, “Make Choices for a Healthy Lifestyle!” and provides Adcock’s phone number for any parents who have questions about the menu.
Another nutritional topic that is shared with parents is the importance of breakfast. Dozens of studies confirm that skipping breakfast impacts a child’s alertness, attention, memory, problem solving and mathematics skills. “A lot of families do not realize that if they are eligible for the free or reduced lunch they are eligible for the breakfast, it is just a matter of getting here. It is not just that one meal a day, there are two available.”
To get the message out, Arbor has rolled out a Healthy Breakfast Campaign in the district’s middle school and high school. District 129 itself helps spread the message to parents by providing breakfast for all students during ISAT testing weeks, helping them recognize the importance of the nutritional aspect of breakfast as related to test taking and student engagement in the classroom.
But perhaps the most powerful marketing assistance the breakfast program received this year was the bone-chilling cold winter that produced a record-breaking 26 days at zero or below. That’s probably how the food service gained some new early-morning customers by promoting a free steaming-hot cup of cocoa with a hot breakfast.