More Arizona schools pursuing HealthierUS nutrition standards
PRESCOTT VALLEY – Watermelon, strawberry, kiwi and orange.
For many children, these are the flavors of their favorite candies and slushes. But for the students at Lake Valley Elementary School, they are typical fresh-fruit choices offered at the salad bar each day.
Sarai Meza, a sixth-grader, is partial to the watermelon. As a competitive gymnast, she says the fresh fruits and vegetables she gets at lunch give her the energy she needs for her three-hour nightly practices.
It makes me healthy and it makes me get smarter," Sarai said. "I feel sadness that other kids don't get the food that we eat."
Rick Littell, food and nutrition services director for the Humboldt Unified School District, which includes Lake Valley Elementary, says he sees his job as much more than planning menus.
"It's not just about giving students healthful foods," Littell said. "It's also about educating and creating healthy habits."
Last year, Lake Valley Elementary's commitment to providing nutritious foods for students earned it an award as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS School Challenge.
Washington Elementary School in north-central Phoenix is the only other Arizona school honored through the program, which launched in 2004. Nationally, 875 schools in 38 states have met the criteria.
But with first lady Michelle Obama's inclusion of the HealthierUS School Challenge into her Let's Move campaign against childhood obesity, interest in the program has led more Arizona schools to pursue it.
According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2007 statistics, 31 percent of Arizona children between ages 10 and 17 are overweight or obese.
Schools that meet the HealthierUS School Challenge criteria for nutrition, physical fitness and wellness education receive cash incentive prizes of $500 to $2,000 at four recognition levels: bronze, silver, gold and gold with distinction. Washington Elementary received a gold, while Lake Valley Elementary won a silver.
Christopher Wharton, an assistant professor at Arizona State University's College of Nursing and Health Innovation who specializes in food policy and food assistance programs, said the challenge's goals reflect a shift in obesity research from focusing on individual behavior change to creating healthy food environments.
"We've seen that focusing on the individual is not all that successful," Wharton said.
HealthierUS School Challenge nutrition requirements emphasize providing low-sodium, low-fat meals rich in whole grains and dark green and orange fruits and vegetables. These standards are consistent with the nonprofit Institute of Medicine's recommendations for how to bring the National School Lunch Program in line with USDA 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Wharton said it's possible that some of the HealthierUS School Challenge's standards could be mandated soon if Congress passes the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in its current form. Those concerned about mandating these standards for all schools worry that it could raise districts' food-service costs.
"People presume that anytime you go healthier it costs more money," Wharton said.
Schools lunch budgets are based on reimbursement from the USDA National School Lunch Program for each student receiving free or reduced lunch. Arizona Department of Education officials provide technical assistance to facilitate the applications for grants and incentive programs.
Since the first lady made the HealthierUS School Challenge part of her campaign, more than two dozen schools around Arizona have begun the extensive application process, which includes workshops on meeting the requirements, said Amy Rezzonico, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
Littell, the Humboldt Unified School District's food and nutrition services director, said the poor economy has made the role of schools more prominent in kids' daily diets.
"I do believe that people [school districts] are pursuing these grants more now because of media attention to nutrition and issues of obesity," Littell said.
Mesa Public Schools, the state's largest school district, already receives funding from the USDA's Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program, which provides snacks during the school day, and is currently working on its application for the HealthierUS School Challenge.
Area Supervisor of Inventory and Cost Control Craig Weidel says the award is a way to recognize and promote the district's ongoing commitment to providing healthy food choices.
"The bottom line is you can't teach a hungry child, whether they're in second grade or high school," Weidel said. "You can't get the best performance."