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Healthy kids, healthy minds -- an up-close look at school nutrition

In Georgia’s public schools, alongside educators helping children grow in knowledge and competency and skill, others are pushing to ensure that they’re growing in strength and health as well.

Each day, School Nutrition staff members work to provide students with the tools they need to live a healthy lifestyle – which, in turn, empowers each of them to turn a nourished and focused mind toward academics. GaDOE’s School Nutrition staff is tasked with providing leadership, training, technical assistance and resources to the local program personnel who are on the ground working toward that goal.

Below is a closer look at school nutrition in two districts – Monroe County and Carrollton City. The innovation taking place in both districts is a reminder that, while there is still work to be done, today’s public-school students are uniquely equipped to make smart, healthy choices, now and in the future.

 In Monroe County, a push to create wellness hotspots

When you step into a public school, you should be in a space that inspires you to make healthy decisions – an atmosphere of energy, focused on nutrition and movement and everything else your brain needs to function at peak efficiency.

That type of health hotspot is what Lisa Singley is working to create in the Monroe County Public Schools.

 “You hear everything about obesity, the fact that they’re not getting as much exercise at home,” said Singley, the district’s director of school nutrition. “Here, you have a captive audience every day, for 175 to 180 days. We have them every day and the impact that we can make on their health now, when we start young, will only benefit them in the end.”

Singley has worked to designate the county’s schools as “wellness zones,” in ceremonies followed by four weeks of intense wellness promotion.

“What that’s meant to do is promote health and wellness throughout the school and throughout the community – because schools are the center of a community,” she said.

That means there are daily announcements focusing on a different aspect of nutrition or physical health each week. There are brain-booster activities in the mornings and afternoons, giving students the chance to participate in quick bursts – about two minutes – of exercise.

Students have designed their own breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack menus based around healthy, fresh ingredients. Teachers have incorporated nutrition in math instruction. Representatives from the Macon Farmers Market have stopped in to teach students about sustainable, in-season fruits and vegetables. 

Teachers are leading by example, giving students the chance to earn points when they “catch” a teacher making a healthy choice – drinking a bottle of water in the hallway, for example, or digging into a salad at lunch. In warmer weather, Superintendent Anthony Pack holds twice-weekly “walk and talk” events – a chance for community members, teachers and parents to share concerns while sharing some exercise, too.

Slowly but surely, all of it is changing the culture among students. 

“Oh, I don’t like tomatoes,” Singley recalls one student saying. “Well,” she replied. “Do you put ketchup on your French fries? Do you eat salsa?”

By the end of the conversation, the student was convinced that she did, in fact, like tomatoes.

“Making that connection in elementary school,” Singley said, “is just amazing.”

In 2013, Singley was recognized as a Georgia Action for Healthy Kids Healthy Hero award winner. Monroe County’s K.B. Sutton Elementary School has been recognized as a Georgia Best Practice for Wellness Promotion, and Samuel Hubbard Elementary has received a Get Active, Get Fit School Challenge Award.

More rewarding, Singley said, are the smaller moments – the ones when a picky eater learns to love broccoli, or a high-school student says they love the meals they’re eating at school.

“When you can teach a fifth grader about making healthy choices and they understand that – if you can impact them then, that sets the stage for the choices they’re going to make in the future, for the rest of their life,” Singley said.

Community education, strong foundations in Carrollton City Schools

Linette Dodson has seen thousands of kids make their way through the Carrollton City Schools. For nearly 14 years, she’s worked to make sure all of them leave a little healthier. 

Lately, Dodson has focused on finding innovative ways to reach out to the community – making sure they know that “school food is good food,” that it’s appealing not only in taste but in nutritional benefits as well.

“We’ve been really focused on taking our message to the community,” Dodson said. “With all the good things we’re doing internally, I kind of realized that folks still aren’t aware of them.”

To accomplish that, Dodson and her team have handed out something like 3,000 samples of school foods – homemade hummus, barbecue, and the like – at the Taste of Carrollton event. They’ve cooked up soup for local fundraisers. In May, they’ll join the district’s community forum to provide food samples and information about the program’s offerings.

Programs have changed in the last 14 years, but Dodson’s focus hasn’t.

“It’s a great opportunity for us in school nutrition to lay that foundation of teaching them what good choices are, both with eating and with activity and how that impacts them long-term,” she said. “Hopefully, we’re laying that foundation that will support them the rest of their life.”

In the Carrollton City Schools, students are growing and eating fresh vegetables in school gardens. They’re eating breakfast in the classroom, starting the day well-fed, rejuvenated and ready to learn. They’re being exposed to new fruits and vegetables at school, going home and asking their parents to buy blueberries or starfruit. Last year, the district’s Seamless Summer program served 27,000 meals – in a district with an enrollment below 5,000.

Collectively, the district and schools within it have received Gold Level status through the Healthier U.S. School Challenge Awards, a 2013 Regional USDA Best Practice Award, a 2012 Georgia Best Practice Award, 2013 and 2014 Georgia SHAPE grants, a 2013 USDA Farm to School planning grant, a 2013 Action for Healthy Kids Summer Feeding grant, two 2014 Action for Healthy Kids Breakfast Expansion grants, the donation of a Let’s Move salad bar from the Atlanta Falcons, a 2013 Golden Radish award and designation as a National Let’s Move district. In 2013, Dodson was named School Nutrition Director of the Year by the Georgia School Nutrition Association.

The result: Nutrition blends with curriculum, and students are positively impacted in their health and their academic ability alike.

“The cool thing, I think, is we’re seeing a lot of the foundation we’ve been laying for a while take hold in the district,” Dodson said. “…School meals really are a great thing for students. We really are trying to give them the best.”