PAWTUCKET—Homemade muffins, mango slaw, chicken lo mein and tabouli are a far cry from typical school lunch fare. Yet, offering more healthy and creatively fun food choices has helped earn eight city elementary schools a prestigious nutrition wellness honor from the United States Department of Agriculture.
In a ceremony held at the Fallon Elementary School on Thursday, representatives from the eight schools received “HealthierUS Awards” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is one of the nation's highest school nutrition awards as part of the USDA's “HealthierUS School Challenge.”
Among those attending the ceremony were James C. Arena-DeRosa, Regional Administrator for the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, Northeast Region; Mayor Donald Grebien, Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke, state Department of Health Director Dr. David Gifford, state Department of Environmental Management Chief Kenneth D. Ayars, and school Business Manager Thomas Conlon. School Committee members Joanne Bonollo, chairwoman of the district's Health and Wellness Committee, Nicole Nordquist and Michael Araujo were also present.
According to Jane Francis of the USDA, the Pawtucket elementary schools now join the ranks of an elite group recognized for health, nutrition and fitness excellence. Only one percent of schools nationwide have achieved “HealthierUS” status.
The HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) is a voluntary initiative established in 2004 to recognize those schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity. Last February, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced “Let's Move!”, incorporating the HealthierUS School Challenge into her campaign to raise a healthier generation of kids. At that time, monetary incentive awards became available for each HUSSC award level: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Gold Award of Distinction.
Winning the HUSSC Bronze Award category were: Potter Burns, Fallon, Nathanael Greene, Winters, Agnes Little, Curtis, Baldwin and Varieur. These join previous winners in the Gold category of Cunningham and Curvin McCabe.
In addition, Solange Morrissette, general manager of Sodexo Education Services, the school district's food services provider, was honored with a “Certificate of Excellence” for partnering with the school district to combine nutrition education with physical activity.
The USDA praised the Pawtucket elementary schools' “successful, holistic approach to creating a healthy environment.” Along with regular physical education programs during the course of the academic day, it was noted that the schools also have a strong after-school program promoting physical health and well-being through fun activities like basketball, yoga and karate.
In addition to the focus on physical activity, the USDA said that Sodexo improved student well-being in the school district when it moved away from serving processed packaged foods and replaced them with cooking done from scratch. Examples of these menu changes include freshly baked muffins, granola made with local honey and chicken vegetable lo mein made with whole wheat pasta and local honey. The food services company also made healthy changes such as replacing French fries with local roasted potatoes and chicken nuggets with grilled chicken.
Additionally, the USDA noted that Sodexo works with food suppliers to purchase as much local food as possible for Pawtucket schools. It also further supported the HealthierUS certification efforts through nutrition education programs like chef visits, taste-testing events, demonstration cooking stations and “Color My World,” a week-long celebration that uses different colors to teach good nutrition.
At the awards presentation, James C. Arena-DeRosa, regional administrator for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Northeast Region, said that with these eight awards, Pawtucket now has more HealthierUS Schools than any school system in New England.
Arena-DeRosa noted that the program “takes a lot of work and a lot of people working together. And it's hard to change routines and systems.” “But,” he added, “Nothing is more important as a community to invest in health education. We're hoping that the lessons learned in Pawtucket can be shared with the entire region.”
Solange Morrissette, of Sodexo, said that several key partnerships with local farms such as Roch's Fresh Foods, Chartner Farms and Aquidneck Honey have been key with being able to introduce healthier food choices into the school breakfast and lunch programs. She also said that the schools' kitchen staff has embraced the idea of baking and making more of the food from scratch and of trying out new recipes.
Morrissette said that a majority of kids have responded enthusiastically to the new food offerings. “We just introduced tabouli as part of the salad bar and the kids have been scooping it on their plates,” she said. “The kids have noted the improvement in the food.”
Joseph McNamara, the district's health and wellness coordinator and director of the Alternative Learning Program, said that meeting the awards criteria required a combined effort from many people, including school administrators and teachers, the food service staff and the School Committee. He also congratulated the students “for getting on board with this.”
McNamara added that, given the current economy, there are many more kids who depend on the schools for their breakfast and lunch. “This year is the first year I have seen students with real food issues,” said McNamara, who is also a state legislator. “On a recent early release day, I had eight students ask me if they could stay and have lunch.”