TAKING ROOT. (t. to b.) Students at Mound Elementary School make salsa and tortillas as part of VUSD's Cooking in the Classroom lessons. Students at Lincoln Elementary show off their schoolgrown radishes. Kindergartners from the Juanamaria School visit the Ventura Farmer's Market to learn about local produce. Garden Lessons at VUSD teach children about food, the environment and the agriculture industry.
WEED IT AND REAP. Growing a vegetable garden teaches the link between food production and consumption, while offering young minds the opportunity to explore nature.
BULK BUYING. Purchasing strawberries in large quantities from a local farmer has helped sustain and enrich the local growing community.
ON THE SPOT EDUCATION. Parents, volunteers, teachers and child nutrition staff teach younger students about the importance of fruits and vegetables by taking them on a field trip to a nearby farmers market.
COOKING WITH A MISSION. The Cooking-in-the-Classroom Mission lesson combines nutrition and cultural education by teaching fourth graders to prepare tortillas and salsa, reflecting the culinary history of Native Americans (corn flour, masa) and Spanish missionaries (salsa, chiles).
A LEARNING LABRATORY. The cafeteria becomes a classroom as students experience (t.) fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables purchased from local farmers when available on the kid-friendly salads bars. Nutrition educators (b.) talk with students about nutrition and how it relates to their bodies.
HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW? Brendan Freeman, garden coordinator, uses the District's Demonstration Garden to test-grow new plants.
To teach children about food in the context of basic nutrition misses the point, or many points, about the relationships we have to the foods we eat. Food is more than the substance that nourishes our bodies. It charts global economic patterns. It reflects the changing patterns of trade and geopolitical alliances. It defines our values, status and health—for better and worse.
It is typical for a sixth grader to learn in home economics that fruits and vegetables are good for her body. She gets a copy of the food pyramid to take home. She doesn't study the pyramid beyond this point and she's never tested about its importance to total health.
What if, instead of studying nutrition, the same sixth grader were studying arithmetic. Would basic addition, and a take home book about algebra satisfy the state standards?
In its call to action, Ventura Unified School District in Southern California is challenging teachers, administrators, parents, kids and the local community to do a far better job at addressing nutrition and wellness.
As director of child nutrition services at VUSD, Sandy VanHouten-Curwood, R.D., M.S., agrees that change, on a grand scale, is possible and very much needed. So much so that she has dedicated her career to helping design a blueprint—or shall we say greenprint—of how this might be effectively accomplished so that other schools might create a similar model to address the same concerns.
Building A Healthy Model
"The systems we have in place in this country are more than 60 years old," says VanHouten-Curwood. "Humans have a remarkable capacity to plan ahead, shape the future and adapt to new settings. It our job as educators, administrators, parents and role models to direct the future of our kids."
From the curriculum to school lunches, from the nurse's office to the custodian's closet, from P.E. class to the teacher's lounge, the nutrition message from VUSD is that health promotion and maintenance is a group effort in which everyone has roles, responsibilities and possibilities. With the help of VanHouten-Curwood and her team, VUSD is successfully developing and implementing a fully integrated nutrition curricula with a back-to-the-farm philosophy that is helping to instill lifelong healthy eating and healthy living habits in students across the district.
Dubbed The Healthy Schools Project, the program began as a collaboration between Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), the Juanamaria Elementary Parent Teacher Association, and VUSD, with support from numerous community based organizations. Over the course of seven years, it has grown to serve 17 elementary schools, four middle schools and four high schools.
Against a rising tide of children who are overweight and out of shape, the project ties into classroom lessons about food and health, promotes the development of school gardens to teach youngsters where their food comes from, combines the garden experience with classroom learning at the salad bar, and nurtures a relationship with the local agricultural community.
The six goals of the Healthy Schools Project are:
• to provide learning opportunities for students to make healthy choices;
• to give children hands-on, sensory experience of fresh fruits and vegetables;
• to show children the agricultural sources of their food;
• to build a relationship between the school community and local agriculture;
• to support parents' efforts for their children's positive health behavior;
• and to develop a local market for local farmers."
"Our foodservice philosophy follows four guiding principals. The first is that students have access to school breakfast, school lunch and after school snacks. The second is to make sure the food we serve is as wholesome, nutritious and healthful as possible. The third is to operate in a fiscally responsible manner. And the fourth is to support the child nutrition services staff," says VanHouten-Curwood.
"The district's goal is to graduate successful students with a healthy agricultural literacy. It's our job to educate all students in safe, challenging and healthy schools."
The Great Body Shop
What better way to learn about division than cutting up melons?
Visit any of VUSD's 17 elementary schools and you'll likely find a gaggle of students incorporating agriculture, nutrition or health into other parts of everyday subjects.
"We use a comprehensive health curriculum called The Great Body Shop," says Nancy Maxson, healthy program coordinator. "It covers the whole scope and sequence."
The Great Body Shop provides a fullyarticulated cross-curricular approach to the healthy education curriculum at VUSD. It covers a number of specific areas including substance abuse prevention, social and emotional health, character education, violence prevention (including bullying), critical thinking, asset building, reading, communication, technology and other learning skills.
"The Healthy Schools Project parallels this curriculum perfectly," adds Maxson.
So much so that school cafeterias have become learning laboratories for students, teachers and parents.
"You can involve kitchen staff in the classroom or you can involve teachers in the cafeteria," says VanHouten-Curwood. "You can teach connections between food and math, science, or social studies. You can invite farmers to give lessons in the classroom and you can teach students to prepare foods in a nutritious way."
Constructing a tripart model that parallels the school's health education component, VUSD's Healthy Schools Project uses nutrition education, garden enhanced learning, and a farm-to-school program as umbrella categories for the many subsequent programs within the project.
Integrated Nutrition Education
Leading the nutrition education piece is Marilyn Godfrey, Healthy Schools Project coordinator, who is both a dietitian and a credentialed educator. She's been on the front lines for the past five years. Godfrey coordinates with six grant-funded nutrition educators who are all registered dietitians.
Together, they develop and implement nutrition lessons at each individual school.
A sampling of the education programs include the Harvest of the Month (see above), cooking in the classroom, nutrition lessons (portion sizes, food pyramid, label reading), parent education, farmer in the classroom, mini farmers' markets, teacher in-service training, teacher quarterly newsletters, after school jr. chef club, and school nutrition action committees. Some of the programs are available statewide; others are developed in house; all serve the greater mission of the project.
"Students, especially younger ones, need that hands-on component to understand what role nutrition plays in their lives," says Godfrey.
One of the most popular nutrition lessons is the demonstration juice lesson.
"Our nutrition educator will juice a fresh orange in front of the students. She'll say, ‘This is 100% juice. This is what it looks like. This is how you make it. This is what it tastes like.' Then she'll make a recipe for a ‘juice' that is based on large quantities of sweetener, orange flavoring, water, and food coloring."
The message is clear. Afterward, the nutrition educator does a mini-label reading lesson to teach students what a label for 100% fruit juice should look like. "We will also talk about advertising campaigns," says Godfrey. "It's important to explain to students that just because some juices may be marketed as ‘good for you' doesn't mean they meet sound nutrition criteria."
Turning a New Leaf
VUSD also sponsors a fully-developed "Farm to School" program that by next year will be implemented throughout the district. The project has successfully placed cafeteria salad bars stocked with local farm fresh produce in each of the district's 25 schools.
Members of the Juanamaria PTA sought out and received grant money from a number of institutions, including the California Endowment, the Hansen Trust, and the Ventura County Department of Public Health, to start the program. This money was used to purchase kid-friendly salad bars, hire additional staff, expand the school garden program, and hire a community health educator to reach out to the local adult population.
The produce for the Juanamaria salad bar originally came from three different locations: local farms through CAFF, a local produce distributor, and through an agreement with the California Avocado Commission. Produce costs per salad bar day totaled about $151.00, delivery costs were generally $50.00, and the cost of additional cafeteria staff was $49.00 for a total cost of $220 per salad bar day. The start up cost of the program was approximately $6,800, paid for with grant funds, but now with more experience, new salad bar start up costs dropped to about $3,400.
Evaluations of the program during and after it was first launched showed that students and staff overwhelmingly chose the salad bar option at lunch. In response, CNS decided to extend the salad bar option to daily meals. Previously, it was only offered twice a week.
Today's Farm-to-School salad bars features fresh and, whenever possible, locally grown vegetables and fruits in a balanced meal.
"Hooking young people on healthy fare early on will be important to reducing the alarming obesity and diet-related disease rates," says VanHouten-Curwood. "As we implemented each salad bar in the schools, the kids took a salad-bar etiquette class to familiarize themselves with the process. At first they're a little hesitant, but after a week or so they fill their plates with the many healthful options."
Serving everything from jicama, lettuce and green beans to apples, strawberries and apricots, students are hard pressed not to produce a nutritionally balanced plate. The farm-to-school salad bars also help students and schools build relationships with local growers. "It brings all parts of the Healthy Schools Project together," says VanHoutenCurwood.
At the same time, the district has helped bolster the county's farm economy, spending more than $100,000 each school year on purchases from local growers to keep the salad bars stocked with fresh fixings. VUSD has become such a good customer that farmers are now custom-growing produce for the salad bar program.
"We're making a market for small farmers and helping keep them in business," says Godfrey. "Being in Southern California, we struggle to avoid urbanization. We've done a pretty good job to save our farm lands. The Healthy Schools Project has helped students understand and respect the crops that are growing around them and the land we live on."
"Farm-to-school programs can also be a boon to food service directors seeking to serve tasty, appealing and healthful foods while also improving their bottom lines," says VanHouten-Curwood.
Introducing salad bars into the meal program has proven cost-effective, partly because VUSD has been buying fresh produce and getting it processed for less than it costs to buy through the USDA commodity program. The program has reduced food waste by 90%, increased breakfast participation by 16% and lunch participation by 15%, and increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption district wide over the past six years.
Asphalt is Easy, Green Takes Guts
"You can't pave over the best strawberry land in the world and expect to still have the best tasting strawberries," says VanHoutenCurwood. "We have to teach children about the relationship between food and the agriculture industry."
Stressing the importance of ag-lit, school gardens allow students to learn and care about how food is grown. They increase students' respect for green space and open space in their community. They make young people a much needed part of food production.
"Students get a real-life experience from the gardens," says VanHouten-Curwood. "It's not just lessons on a chalkboard. With the risk of terrorism to our food supply as well as access to food supplies—in terms of protecting our local community—students need to have a better understanding of the sources of food and how it moves into consumption channels."
The gardens project began in 2001 as part of the Healthy Schools Project. Local nonprofits and businesses helped by donating materials, expertise, and money. Garden coordinators along with help from district staff, parents and others, such as UCCE Master Gardeners, maintain the operation of school gardens at each school site.
But the students are doing more than cultivating their green thumbs in the yearround flower and vegetable gardens. The gardens help bridge the link between food production, consumption and education, while offering young minds the opportunity to explore nature and apply lessons from science, reading and math to real-life situations.
Godfrey, her team of nutrition educators and the garden coordinators, interface with teachers to develop lessons that are applicable to the gardens. Science, journaling, and reading take on new depths in the green space. Students read books about soil management, the history of strawberries, and the importance of worms. In fact, Diary of a Worm is one of the most popular books in second-grade.
What's more, the fruits of the students' efforts often wind up on their plates. Some of the peas, beans, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, and potatoes students grow on school grounds end up being washed, cooked, and "taste-tested" in class. Produce is sometimes carried home by students or dispatched to the cafeteria kitchens, where it's prepped and placed on the salad bars.
These taste-testing sessions are a key component of the Healthy Schools Project. As students harvest and cook their own produce, they also analyze the vitamins contained in fruits, the origins of vegetables, and the natural environment and seasons in which they flourish. During classroom presentations, farmers, chefs, and nutrition experts talk with students about the range of issues involved in living a healthy lifestyle.
The only element missing from the garden plots are the pesticides. Instead, they employ an "integrated pest management" system, which depends on nature's own bugs, birds, and bees.
"We're building a mindset," says VanHouten-Curwood. "We want the kids to protect our earth and to think about and make healthy decisions now and for years to come."
| FAST FACTS: |
No. of students: 18,000
No. of FS Employees: 150
Annual Budget: $7 million
Percentage free & reduced: 40%
Meals served per day: 9,500
Average cost per meal: $1.10
The Harvest of the Month
Every month, the school highlights a fruit or vegetable that is grown in the state of California. The educators and families receive a newsletter about the harvest of the month, there are menu slicks and press release templates as well. The cafeteria managers order the produce and nutrition educators work with the teachers to do in class taste testing with the students. At least once a week for the entire month, the harvest of the Month is featured on the salad bar.
"The harvest of the Month is an easy way for teachers and schools to highlight local and seasonal produces. The materials make it simple for teachers to incorporate nutrition education in the lessons and make the links between the cafeteria and the classroom," says Godfrey.
The objective of the Harvest of the Month tool kit is for students to increase their:
After several years of varied local implementations, Harvest of the Month is now available statewide with an online tool kit. The overall goal of the tool kit is to provide knowledge- and skill-based strategies that are standardized, cost-effective, replicable and convenient. The tool kit uniquely supports core curricular areas through exploration and study. Visit www.harvestofthemonth.com
THE BIG IDEA Healthy Schools Project Recipe
Sandy VanHouten-Curwood offers advice on kick-starting a healthy schools project on the local level. "you need to decide what you, as a district, want to accomplish," she says. "then get the stakeholders together. Look at your funding options, and how you're going to implement the program. Look at what individual schools are doing and talk about ways of expanding those programs district wide. then talk about how you're going to evaluate the program down the road." other tips?
Photography by Joanna Lefebvre