Q&A with Matoaka Elementary
(A Real-life Success Story!)
by Rebelmom Stacey Whitman, Freelance Writer School Bites
Interview with Healthy Lifestyles leaders
Improving school food: Yes, it can be an uphill battle! So when someone succeeds in making positive changes, I can’t help but wonder: How the heck did they do it?!? A few weeks ago, I wrote about the very impressive activities of the Healthy Lifestyles Committee at Matoaka Elementary School in Williamsburg, Va. Under the leadership of two passionate, health-conscious moms—Michelle Alexander and Tryna Fitzpatrick—the committee has had great success in encouraging healthier habits throughout the school.
Beginning with the 2011–2012 school year, the Matoaka Healthy Lifestyle Committee has been helping to implement the school district’s Locally Grown Produce Initiative, for example. The initiative involves creating cafeteria dishes using fresh kale, squash, sweet potatoes, asparagus and other produce grown on a nearby farm. Students get an opportunity to sample the produce as they wait in line to buy lunch.
The Healthy Lifestyle Golden Apple Awards, Matoaka Healthy Recipe Idea Book, and back-to-school night cafeteria tours are some of the other ways that the committee is working to change the status quo for the health of the students–and the staff!
What I love most about the committee’s programs is how positive they all are! No cupcake bans or other restrictions for this school. Instead, they are getting the message across in a healthy, constructive way. To find out exactly how it all came to be, I caught up with Michelle and Tryna, the two super-moms at the center of it all.
How did you manage to get the Healthy Lifestyles Committee started?
M.A.: In 2006, the Williamsburg Community Health Foundation awarded a $2.5 million grant to plan, implement and evaluate a Comprehensive Wellness Program for the entire school division. Part of this grant involved each school having a Wellness Council to implement healthy changes in the school and promote healthy programs around nutrition and physical activity. Since being formed 5 years ago, the Matoaka Elementary Wellness Council has been very active and the school principal, Andy Jacobs, has always been supportive of healthy lifestyles. So, when our Parent Teacher Association (P.T.A.) decided to create the Healthy Lifestyles Committee*, there was already a lot of backing from school administration and staff. We just had to get the parents on board!
In its first year of existence (2012–2011), committee founder Christian Dunn, a Matoaka parent, did a wonderful job with this. She worked with all the P.T.A. committees to make sure that we were supporting Healthy Lifestyles through all our events, programs and fundraisers. She also created our first annual Healthy Lifestyles Week. That year, I was a member of the Healthy Lifestyles Committee, as well as a member of the Cafeteria Task Force. At the end of the school year, Christian asked Tryna and I if we would co-chair the committee, and we agreed. We are going to head up the committee next year as well.
The National PTA created Healthy Lifestyles Month to help encourage child wellness in schools. On its website, you can find a Healthy Lifestyles Promotional Toolkit, information on its Healthy Lifestyles Grant, and ideas for how local P.T.A. groups can form these committees in their schools.
What have been your biggest obstacles?
T.F.: One of our biggest obstacles is planning and managing the farm and the growing season with the school and cafeteria staff for the Locally Grown Produce Initiative. For instance, the weather and growing conditions made a scheduled broccoli delivery impossible, so kale was substituted. This required the cafeteria staff to alter their recipe and prep work, and for us to change our sampling procedures.
M.A.: In regards to the Locally Grown Produce Initiative, the major obstacles are logistics. Bringing in all of that local produce requires a lot of time and preparation on the part of our cafeteria staff, in addition to everything they already have to do. Fortunately, our cafeteria manager has been wonderful and very open to new ideas. She also has been willing to try cooking the produce in a different way. Earlier this spring, for example, she made Kale Chips, which took some additional effort, but the kids loved it!
We started out using parent volunteers to provide samples of the “produce of the day” to the kids coming through the cafeteria line. This worked well, but we recognized that we were only getting the kids that were actually buying lunch. Next year, we are hoping to provide samples to all the students via their classrooms the day before the produce is being served in the cafeteria. This may encourage more kids to buy and, at the very least, it gives all students a chance to sample the veggies. This will obviously take a lot more effort on our part, but we are willing to give it a go and the principal is on board with it as well!
Parents can be protective of their cupcakes. Did you experience any resistance to your proposed programs?
T.F.: I wouldn’t necessarily call it “resistance” as we have set no mandates. Our offerings are optional or suggested recommendations. We have not attempted to change school policy (yet!). Everyone has been very receptive to the cafeteria samplings and local produce offerings. However, if a parent or student is not interested in trying a new healthy food item or selecting that item for their lunch, that is okay.
Our work involves more of the idea of setting a good example, offering healthy alternatives, and providing information so that our families can make the choice that is right for them. We’ve had tremendous support from the P.T.A. and the school administration so this makes it easier to spread the Healthy Lifestyles message and gather support for our programs.
We are still working on reducing the cupcakes and other sweet treats that are offered as celebrations at school (such as for birthdays, holidays or good deeds). Our Golden Apple Awards** are a big part of this effort as they allow us to highlight parents and teachers who are setting good examples. This way we can highlight the positive choices without limiting them.
**Golden Apple Awards are given to teachers, staff, parents and others by the Healthy Lifestyles Committee. We seek nominations and award those who are setting a good example by making healthy choices, whether it be exercise, healthy eating, etc. The award includes a certificate to hang and a gift bag. For example, we have given the award to the cafeteria staff for all of their help and support of Local Produce Day; staff members who brought ZUMBA to the school; parents who offered a unique or creative healthy alternative to birthday cupcakes; and teachers who have supported our efforts by having ‘healthy’ classroom celebrations—just to name a few!
How have the kids responded to the changes?
T.F.: Michelle and I have been DELIGHTED with the feedback from the kids! Many of them are excited to try new, healthy dishes and learn about healthy alternatives. So often, my presence in the cafeteria on Local Produce Day has led to discussions with the children about what vegetables they like or don’t like, what they know about gardening, or even what exercise activities they enjoy.
Just having this dialogue is not only fun (for them and us!) but also provides the opportunity to reinforce healthy alternatives and behavior. And, I love it when the kids recognize me at the school or even out in town as “the healthy food tasting lady!” Even children who may not be receptive to our cafeteria healthy food sample at first will often change their mind after they see their friends try it or hear their classmates discuss it. This positive peer influence is a great way to encourage the kids without pressuring them.
Other than the school cafeteria survey, did you solicit any feedback from parents and teachers before implementing the changes?
M.A.: We did not have any more formal feedback, but anecdotal comments, feedback and ideas helped us to make some decisions about the Local Produce Program. Through the grant mentioned earlier, Matoaka had been doing Farm to School activities during Farm to School Week in the fall. This was coordinated by the registered dietitian that works on the grant. We decided to try and expand to provide the Farm to School activities year round. It has been a pretty big success and well received by teachers, students and parents.
Why do you think the Healthy Lifestyles campaign has been so successful?
T.F.: The support of the parents, staff, P.T.A. and school administration, including Principal Jacobs, has been key. From P.T.A. members volunteering on local produce sample day to teachers helping to promote our programs to cafeteria staff being willing to put in extra work to make our sample day possible–we couldn’t possibly do it without them! I also believe that our parents are highly receptive to the idea, at least based on what we saw from the results of our survey. Many are open to the idea of healthier options in the cafeteria and are therefore willing to support our efforts in a variety of ways.
I heard that your school district has asked the other elementary schools to start Healthy Lifestyles Committees, too…?
T.F.: Yes. The Williamsburg James City County has a School Health Initiative Program(SHIP), which has done a lot of work in promoting the Healthy Lifestyles idea to the schools in our district. Many of them are interested in hearing from Matoaka and specifically our Healthy Lifestyles Committee. Click here to read more about SHIP.
What’s your advice to other parents interested in making healthy changes at their school?
T.F.: Work with your P.T.A. and school administration to determine the level of interest and then start small. Find out the biggest concerns at your school. (Lunch quality? Candy/cupcakes? Physical activity? Creating a school garden?). Form a list of parents who would be interested in donating their time to the program. You might create a Healthy Lifestyles event with chef demonstrations or a Healthy Celebration initiative that offers examples of alternatives to birthday cupcakes. Small contributions can make a big difference that will lead to significant changes at your school.