Rebel Families

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 AwardsMatoaka 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.

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