Living Out Their Salad Days: Shaping Healthier Environments for Kids in the Nation’s Schools

Sep 2, 2014, 10:59 AM, Posted by

A school lunchroom full of hundreds of young children, happily slurping up ... salad.

If you’re someone who’s ever struggled to get kids to eat their vegetables, it sounds like an impossible dream.

But this is reality at Anne Frank Elementary School, the largest in Philadelphia, with 1,200 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Serving salads was the brainchild of Anne Frank principal Mickey Komins, who had the salads brought in from a local high school cafeteria.

Along with the after-school Zumba and kickboxing classes that the school now sponsors for kids, parents, and staff, healthier food offerings are among the innovations that earned Anne Frank an award from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The Alliance, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantee, is a nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to help stem the tide of childhood obesity. It’s at the vanguard of a growing national movement to turn schools into healthier environments, and offer kids fundamental lifelong lessons about maintaining their health.

The Alliance first sought to enlist Anne Frank Elementary four years ago in its Healthy Schools Program to support healthful eating and physical activity. With nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children overweight or obese—and since many children consume at least a third to one-half of their daily calories at school—it didn’t take much to persuade Komins, a former physical education teacher turned administrator, that combating child obesity would require such “revolutionary” measures as serving more green vegetables to kids.

Following the Alliance’s framework, Komins and his team first sent out a survey to the rest of the staff, soliciting their ideas for building a healthier school. Next came a survey of kids and parents to determine their interests and obtain buy-in for any changes.

 “We started out very small because we didn’t want to overwhelm people,” Komins says. “If you start small, you get small successes and find things you can build on.”

The initial building blocks included two councils created to advise the school on changes: one representing adults and another, students. Besides salad, fruits were added to the school menu. The school sent a letter home to parents asking them not to send in sweets for birthdays, and suggesting an alternate list of food and non-food items, such as stickers. One student arrived at school subsequently with 30 Greek yogurts for his classmates as a birthday treat.

On the activity front, teachers began scheduling a “JAMmin’Minute” in classes to get kids up and moving. A once-a-week exercise class for teachers after school eventually led to multiple classes for kids, teachers, and parents. And an annual 5K “color” run was scheduled to provide a fun-filled event in which the participants—students, parents and school staff—were blasted with colored powder as they passed various stations along the way.

The results are in: Average body mass index scores for Anne Frank’s students have decreased by three points—from 25 to 22—since the changes were initiated, according to an analysis conducted by the school’s nurse. (To put that in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a 10-year-old boy with a BMI of 21 overweight; with a BMI of 23, obese.) Komins is now a Healthy School Ambassador for the alliance—one of a group of 30 innovators who’ve adopted program and policy changes to support healthful eating and physical activity in schools.

These voluntary efforts have gained reinforcements at the federal level. Revised federal nutrition standards governing school meals are being phased in from 2012 to 2022, and new standards governing snack foods and beverages sold in schools take effect this school year. Still other public-private partnerships, like First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, have sparked the Salad Bars to Schools program to raise private donations to install such facilities in schools.

Best of all, there’s growing evidence that such measures work. Although a Government Accountability Office study earlier this year reported a 3.7 percent decline in the number of students participating in the National School Lunch Program, a separate study, sponsored by the RWJF Bridging the Gap research program, shows that 7 in 10 U.S. public school administrators surveyed say the majority of students like the meals produced under the new federal standards. Still other RWJF-funded research shows a link between strong school meal standards and lower rates of child obesity.

The bottom line: At Anne Frank Elementary and elsewhere, millions of kids nationwide are returning to healthier schools this fall. That means that they’ll be able to look back on their school days as genuine salad days for many more years to come.


Live Discussion: Back to School: Active Kids, Healthier Food

On Friday, September 5, the Foundation hosted a discussion focusing on the importance of improved nutrition and greater physical activity for kids, and the great strides made in schools across the country with the support of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program.

Watch the video, below.