For public school students in West Babylon, N.Y., greasy cafeteria food and boring physical education classes are so yesterday. These days, students can choose from a healthy lunch menu that tastes great and physical education options that include high-energy dance classes. The changes are making a difference in students’ BMI numbers.

“Our old joke used to be, ‘What’s a typical high school lunch?’” says Assistant Superintendent Dominick Palma, who has helped spearhead many of the changes. “The answer: ‘A double order of fries.’ But not anymore.”

Palma remembers when the old kitchen fryer vats at West Babylon High School stopped working about five years ago. Instead of buying new vats, the school bought ovens that allow for healthier cooking methods. At the same time, the entire lunch menu was revamped to cut back on salty and fried foods in favor of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. All salt shakers were removed from the cafeteria. Healthy wraps and sandwiches, featuring lower-fat, brand-name cold cuts, are today a mainstay, as are baked french fries.

The high school’s students have not only embraced such changes, they’ve sometimes been their biggest advocates.

“I first got involved as a freshman because I wanted to make actual changes instead of just talking about the obesity problem,” says Kassondra, now a senior and one of 20 student health ambassadors who help shape and implement school health policy in collaboration with the principal and the school nurse.

“We started with gym classes,” she says. “A lot of kids would dread gym and try to get out of it.” As part of the PE makeover, quarterly electives were introduced to give students more choices. Hundreds of students have signed up for the dance elective, making it the most requested high school course. “Now you don’t even notice you’re doing gym, you’re just having fun.”

West Babylon, a Long Island suburb of New York City, serves about 4,500 students from elementary through high school. Each of its seven schools has an active wellness council with teachers, parents and students. And each participates in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program (HSP), which works to improve school environments nationwide by promoting healthy eating and physical activity. The Alliance, a joint venture of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, aims to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015, and to empower kids nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supports the Healthy Schools Program.

Like many school districts across the country, West Babylon uses federal commodity foods to keep costs down, but still has the challenge of providing students with flavorful meals that have nutritional value. At West Babylon High, with ingenuity and some old family recipes, the school’s Italian-American cook developed a home-style entrée that combines standard-issue cans of surplus tomato sauce with fresh vegetables and spices. Ladled onto whole-wheat pasta, the dish, served weekly, is becoming one of the most popular items on the menu. And like all other offerings, it fits within the Alliance’s nutritional guidelines.

The food changes don’t stop at the cafeteria door. Across the district, parents have been asked to replace cupcakes and candy at school parties and events with fruit or vegetable trays or other snacks that meet the Alliance’s nutritional guidelines. One school has taken the additional step of creating a “Celebration Day”, honoring all the birthdays that fall within a given month, rather than celebrating each child’s birthday individually.

“It sounds silly, but it was a big deal when we banned cupcakes,” Kassondra says. “It even made the local news. We still have bakes sales for fundraising, but now everything is made here at the school. We use healthier ingredients, and we know what we’re eating.”

According to West Babylon School District data collected between 2004 and 2010, the percentage of students with a healthy body mass index (BMI) increased by 10 percent,
and Palma expects to see that positive trend continue. The data has also helped the district to identify students at risk for obesity and to work with them on personalized wellness programs.

“These are radical changes,” says Palma, who was named a national champion of the Healthy Schools Program in 2009. “There’s been a shift in the very culture of our school community, and everyone’s had a part to play.”