East of Los Angeles, in this town known historically as the “End of the Santa Fe Trail,” 38 percent of the elementary school students are overweight or obese. By the time the children of El Monte enter high school, half of them fall into one of those categories. School district administrators decided they had to do something to promote the health of the city's children. First, they improved meals in the district, which also prepares food for two private schools and an alternative high school. Then, in 2009, the district tackled snacks that could be purchased a la carte at lunch, food items sold to raise money for schools and clubs, and sweet treats passed out in classrooms. The children did not object to the changes, but many of their parents did. Some voiced concerns about the impact on fundraising, while others did not see the link between less-nutritious options at school and subsequent health consequences.
The district has worked to ensure the healthfulness of the items sold in its schools. Vending machines sell only water, and the a la carte drink options at lunch are limited to water and low-fat or fat-free milk. Perhaps the most effective tactic the district used was its workshops for parents on how to conduct nonfood fundraisers. Now, instead of selling cookies and chocolate, the district raises money through jog-a-thons and dance-a-thons. These events, which are produced at no cost to the district, deliver two direct health benefits: Students steer clear of less-healthy desserts and they get exercise. And the pledge money adds up. “One of the schools raised more than $20,000 in a jog-a-thon,” says Robert Lewis, the district's director of nutrition services. “You really can't beat it.”
The district got rid of a la carte snacks and increased the availability of healthy snacks in other venues. Three times a week, students get free fruit and vegetable snacks in their classrooms as part of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. Recently, the district placed an even greater emphasis on having healthy snacks, such as fruits or veggie sticks, at classroom parties. Students competed to come up with a slogan for the endeavor. The winning entry—a poster featuring a giant cupcake with a line through it and the words “This is a No-Cupcake Zone”—hangs in every school.
Still, administrators wanted to do more than change the food served at school; they wanted students to learn about nutrition. El Monte has become a “Healthy School Zone” with the following activities:
- In the summer, the district offers a week-long cooking camp. Teachers and chefs work together to tie in healthy cooking (and sample foods) with classroom lessons in science, math, and social studies.
- The school superintendent sponsors an essay-writing contest about nutrition.
- Seventh- and eighth-graders hold a nutrition expo in a city park to teach the community about the health consequences of too much sugar and sodium.
- Most schools have nutrition advisory councils comprised of students and sponsor activities for parents, such as healthy breakfasts and instruction in how to make nutritious choices.
At A Glance
District: El Monte City School District (K-8)
Location: El Monte, CA
Number of Schools:14
Free and reduced-price meals: 85 percent
Measures of Success
After the district eliminated a la carte food offerings at lunch, participation in the meal program increased 10 percent. Now, 85 percent to 88 percent of students eat full school lunches each day. As many as 35 percent eat breakfast, either in the cafeteria during morning recess or, if they are in middle school, from a “grab 'n' go” cart. As of December 2012, the district also offers a free supper to any student enrolled in an after-school enrichment program. That program, which provides sandwiches, yogurt, wraps, fruit, vegetables, and milk, has nearly 100 percent participation at each of the 14 schools.
The bottom line has improved, too. Because more students are eating meals that are reimbursed by the federal government as part of the National School Lunch Program, and because the school system participates in a food co-op in which 20 districts solicit bids as a group, bringing costs down—the food service no longer runs a deficit. The district has won awards for its program, including recognition of three of its schools as an Alliance for a Healthier Generation Gold school—an honor given nationally to showcase and acknowledge schools that have implemented healthy changes.
Do not underestimate students and be sure to include their parents in the effort to improve school meals. If young people are taught about obesity and nutrition, and if healthy eating is a team effort, then they will feel they have a stake in it. Give students ownership by asking their opinions, offering taste tests, and engaging them in activities such as art and essay contests. When students rejected fish sandwiches, they were asked what they would prefer. The answer: Baja tacos. Now students eat fish in whole grain tortillas, with radishes, cabbage, and healthy from-scratch salsa. The district also markets to the kids. Carrots are not simply carrots, but “X-ray Vision Carrots.” Broccoli is served as “trees.” A tuna and spinach dish that flopped when it was first introduced as the “Popeye” became a hit after it was renamed for Iron Man, a more contemporary superhero. And parents got on board when they were invited into the process and voice their concerns. Making schools healthier is truly a family affair.