What was your favorite part about being a school nutrition director?

I loved being a School Nutrition Director because I got the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children everyday by not only feeding them healthy meals, but teaching them lifelong good eating habits. School meals are the ultimate food safety security net, and to have the opportunity to not only feed children, but feed them incredibly healthy meals is a bonus. As a Registered Dietitian, I loved getting to work in the area of prevention. Children are our future, and if we can teach them to eat healthy, we can prevent so many lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Seeing children learn to eat all kinds of new and different foods is such a thrill. 

Michelle Obama visited your district when she was First Lady as part of her Let’s Move! initiative. Tell us about that visit and other ways you worked with Mrs. Obama during her time in the White House.

Well I have to tell you a funny story about my first time getting invited to the White House. I was visiting one of the schools in my district, and my secretary called and said the White House had called three times for me. My husband owned White House Dry Cleaning, and I told her to tell him I would call him back soon. When she said it was the real White House, I immediately called them back. 

On my first visit with Michelle Obama I was so nervous, but she made us all feel so at home. She said something I will never forget. She said she did not want to look back in 20 years and feel like she could have done something to help improve children’s health and didn’t. She also said that some people thought trying to make meaningful improvement in kids’ health was too hard an issue and that she was getting some criticism about her work. It gave me courage to continue the effort to teach children how to eat healthy even if they were not on board at first. My biggest takeaway on our first meeting was that she was the real deal and that she really cared about this issue.  

Our second meeting was when she came to plant in the gardens at our middle school. The kids were so thrilled to get to meet her. At that visit, my staff made a delicious farm to school lunch and couldn’t wait for the First Lady to eat it. Mrs. Obama enjoyed the lunch so much, she asked if there was more available to share with her team. One of her staff members even called the next day for one of the recipes. 

Toward the end of Mrs. Obama’s time in the White House, I joined her for the dedication of the White House Kitchen Garden. I got to talk to a lot of people to share what progress we had made in changing how children ate and helping make healthy choices more available to them. The fun part was when we got to harvest in the Kitchen Garden – I worked with the only 4 and 5 year olds at the event. One of them lost a tooth while we were waiting for Mrs. Obama to come out and speak, and the other one was so nervous I had to keep getting help to take him to the bathroom! Yet for me the takeaway was all the impressive people and organizations Mrs. Obama had brought together – from celebrities, athletes, and chefs to Disney and Sesame Street – who all played a role in supporting kids’ health.

Can you share examples of ideas or initiatives your district has implemented that got students excited about healthy eating?

One of the ways we got students excited about eating healthy was by doing cooking classes with them. We learned that if students cook it, grow it, or taste test a food, they are much more likely to eat it. The Charlie Cart cooking classes in our district are so popular that teachers often used them as a reward for good student behavior. One middle school student once said after taking a Charlie Cart cooking class that it was the best day of his life. We were able to get students to eat any vegetable they cook, including zucchini and Brussel sprouts by introducing them in cooking classes. 

A second thing we did was include hydroponic tower gardens in a lot of our classes. Students would grow all kinds of lettuce and herbs in the tower gardens and then when the food was harvested, it was either used  in our lunchroom or in a Charlie Cart cooking class. For example, lettuce might be used to make lettuce wraps.

We also built outdoor school gardens, and the students loved to plant, water, and harvest anything in those gardens. We had great success growing kale, collards, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, and herbs. The Farm to School Program not only got the students excited about eating healthy, but the school staff got on board too. They would know when the collards were local and when they were bought. The students and faculty could smell homemade whole wheat rolls and homemade whole wheat cinnamon rolls when they were being baked and it got them excited about school meals. We also served a wide variety of fruits and vegetables so they had enough choices that they knew that they were always going to find something they wanted to eat. 

If we offered cut up oranges, cut up apples, grapes, strawberries and kiwi, children will eat. We made a low fat ranch dressing that the kids loved, and they ate any raw vegetable with it, like broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, and celery. We also tried to do as much scratch cooking as possible. Our Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program exposed the students to over 65 different fruits and vegetables.

What role does healthy eating play in students’ academic success? 

I felt like my job was to give the teachers students who were ready to learn. There is not any debate that students cannot learn on an empty stomach. So that does not just mean making sure they are fueled at breakfast before school starts, but they must be fueled at lunch, and before an after school athletic event and or tutoring. 

We also know that in order for children to learn they must have nutritious food and not just empty calories. That is where the National School Lunch, National School Breakfast, and After-School at Risk Supper Programs come into play because those meals are always designed to be healthy. School meals have been considered some of the healthiest meals in America for students. They are the only meals that have improved kids’ Healthy Eating Index Score over the last 10 years. Studies have shown that students who eat breakfast at school have improved scores on standardized tests. Students who eat at school also attend school more regularly which ensures they have the academic learning time to do better on standardized tests.

How can parents get involved in supporting healthy school meals?

Parents can get involved in supporting healthy school meals by serving on the Schools Wellness Committee and making sure there is a strong Wellness Policy. They can also encourage their children to eat the healthy school meals by not packing their lunches. They can send healthy snacks for birthday parties instead of cupcakes. They can make sure the school does not have unhealthy fundraisers, but promotes healthy fundraisers or fundraisers that don’t involve food. 

What were some of the ways you promoted health and wellness as you were raising your own kids?

One of the things I did was to model exercising regularly. I would get up every morning and go for a run. Now both of my children exercise regularly. One of the pieces of advice I give to every couple getting married or having a baby is to have meals together. We always sat down with the children while they were eating dinner or breakfast even if we were going out to dinner. You can model good eating and encourage them to eat healthy. You can also do a little nutrition education at that time. I tried to cook as often as possible and would involve the kids in cooking as often as possible. Again, if kids cook it, they will eat it. The last thing I did was to take the kids to the grocery store with me. I would let them help me pick out the fruits and vegetables and then let them choose what we were having for dinner.

Thank you so much to Donna for sharing her stories with us. We’re excited to keep collaborating with her as a member of our Kitchen Cabinet. Stay tuned for more right here on Nothing to Sugarcoat.