Less is More
Pasadena aims to trim the fat at local schools with new wellness plan
By Sara Cardine 09/12/2012
Pasadena Unified School District students recently began the 2012-13 school year, and while much of what they saw was just as they left it in June — desks, educational posters, teachers and textbooks — a few old school favorites are decidedly absent this school year.
By the end of the year, chocolate milk and beef will be eliminated from all school menus. Pizza parties to celebrate academic victories, candy bar fundraisers and sweet treats for Halloween and Valentine’s Day are now things of the past. And parents bringing cupcakes and goodies to mark birthdays and special occasions? Forget about it.
These are just a few of the changes outlined in Pasadena Unified’s new Wellness Plan, approved by Board of Education members in June to take effect this school year. Many of the tenets of the policy are designed to bring the district up to speed with state and federal nutrition guidelines, so it can be eligible for the grants and funding needed to pay for compliance, said district Health Coordinator Ann Rector.
“In 2004, there was a federal rule that school districts had to adopt a wellness policy,” said Rector, who came to PUSD six years ago to find a somewhat generic policy that just met the guidelines. “It was a skeleton with not a lot of backbone.”
By contrast, the new program provides a comprehensive framework for changes the district has enacted since Rector’s arrival to address what’s becoming a nationwide health crisis among America’s youth. Today, more than 23 million children and teens in the US are obese or overweight, according to the US Census and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Many more young people are at risk for contracting health-altering diseases like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even stroke in adulthood.
“Obesity is what we’re really fighting here,” said Rector. “Prevention is not glamorous — it’s about change and teaching that there’s a different way.”
Leading by example
This year, district health and food service officials are rolling out updated cafeteria menus, using grants to train parents and students on nutrition basics and have created a Coordinated School Health Council to enact policies and evaluate progress.
The changes are part of a commitment to get parents and students on board with the idea of making healthier choices, said PUSD Child Nutrition Administrator Wesley Howard, who oversees the food service program.
“It is up to us to stay the course on healthy foods we offer for meals, monitor the vending and classroom sales as much as possible,” he said. “At the same time, it will be most important to educate parents through various media to the consequences of unhealthy eating for their children.”
According to Board Policy 5030, nutrition education and information is to be integrated into academic core instruction in all grades preK-12. Cafeterias will continue to carry food items that contain less than 35 percent total fat and 10 percent saturated fat, and students will be required to select fruits or vegetables for two of their three lunch items by staff members.
“The main challenge is educating our students to eat healthy, because most students and adults don't at home, for various reasons,” Howard said. “I believe the burden and good example of healthy eating is and must be on the school breakfast and lunch programs. We may not have that great an effect on the present high school population, but by the time our elementary students get to high school, my prayers are we will see a healthier generation.”
To spread the word about what’s new, large, multicolored banners posted in district headquarters and on every school campus read: “Did you know PUSD is eating healthier than ever?” The signs tout daily meatless entrees, enhanced salad bars at all schools and fresh and seasonal fruits and dried fruits. Even cafeteria pizzas have gotten a makeover, and now feature whole grain dough and low-fat cheese. Officials are hopeful that students will latch on to the new items.
“Basically, what you hear is kids will eat what you give them,” Rector explained.
Champions for change
The Wellness Policy brings the district in full compliance with several new guidelines handed down from state and national agencies. In 2005, the state of California passed regulations restricting the sale of foods and beverages that did not comply with nutritional guidelines from 30 minutes before the school day until 30 minutes after school, including fundraisers and school stores. And last year, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect statewide, reducing sodium levels, requiring items to contain at least 51 percent whole grains and supplying more fruits, vegetables and meat alternatives to students.
The district is also part of the Network for a Healthy California, a joint effort of public and nonprofit agencies to improve the health status of 7 million low-income parents and children living in the state.
“Our goal and mission is to promote and foster healthy behavior through nutrition education and physical activity promotion,” said Katia Ahmed, a project coordinator for the program. “We work closely within our school community with our classroom teachers, students, staff, parents and the community members.”
In the summer of 2011, John Muir High School created a 1.5-acre urban farm on a corner of the campus. Students work in the garden, earning community service and internship hours while picking up important business and life skills in the process. Parents and local residents can buy weekly shares of the fruits, vegetables and flowers Muir Ranch harvests. So far the program is gaining in popularity.
Still, officials foresee some minor difficulties in parent and staff compliance, especially with rules that restrict what can be sold to raise money for groups like the Associated Student Body (ASB) and what parents themselves can bring to school. After all, some parents may not want to be told what their children can and cannot have during the school day, and monitoring what all teachers and aides give out or allow in the classroom each and every day is impossible, Rector acknowledged. But for Karina Contreras, a Pasadena mother of three, the changes are welcome ones.
“I think parents are looking for ways for children to be healthier, and they’re asking for menus to be healthier in the cafeterias,” Contreras said. “I think they’ll agree to this.”
Maybe that’s because Contreras isn’t just a typical PUSD parent. She is one of several “parent champions,” a group of ambassadors trained last year by the district on how to make healthy choices regarding fitness, nutrition and healthier habits like portion control and low- and non-fat substations. The idea is that they will take their knowledge to the streets, educating other parents on what they’ve learned both in workshops and everyday conversations.
“Some people say about me that I’m too picky or too strict, but I don’t care what they think,” Contreras said. “I’m doing this for my children’s health.”
Pasadena Unified School District’s Wellness Policy is available online at pusd.us, under the“Board of Education” tab. For more information on Muir Ranch, including registration details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.