Multiple organizations in Alachua County work to help children develop healthy lifestyle habits, a goal of the Alachua County Education Compact.
School lunches aren’t what they used to be, and that’s a good thing.
Locally grown produce, whole grains and sugar-free drinks are some of the nutritious offerings on the menu for students in Alachua County public schools. Raising the bar for school meal standards is a key part of the mission of Alachua County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, and is one of the ways schools are supporting the Alachua County Education Compact’s goal of developing healthy lifestyle habits.
According to Maria Eunice, director of Food and Nutrition Services, the improvements in school food started several years ago when the National Wellness Policy was launched.
“We got rid of our fryers and pared down our list of ingredients right away,” Eunice said.
Sweeping changes, including a requirement that all baked goods and grain dishes be at least 51 percent whole grain, began in the 2011-2012 school year. Vending machines and concessions are limited to snacks that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Smart Snacks in School” standards, which include specific ingredient and nutrient requirements to limit junk food sold in schools.
Alachua County has always done more than federal regulations require, Eunice said. Chef Moss Crutchfield, the schools’ chef and production manager, is always coming up with new dishes — ones that are tasty, yet healthy.
“His mandarin cranberry chicken is a favorite,” Eunice said.
Crutchfield was able to meet the new federal requirements for grains and vegetables by adding oven roasted tomatoes, green peppers, onions and whole grain penne to his “Pasta Roberts” dish, named after Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Owen Roberts. In order to find the right combination of nutrition and student appeal, student test panels sample each new dish and give feedback.
“Our customers need to help us,” Eunice said.
Above-and-beyond nutrition guidelines, Alachua County Public Schools have made an effort to use cafeteria ingredients from local and sustainable food sources as part of their Farm to School program. The program has received two USDA grants, which helped expand the program with the construction of a facility at the Horizon Center. At this Farm to School to Work Hub, Students in the Exceptional Student Education program plant, harvest and process the produce, which trains them for potential jobs and allows them to learn about the food system through participation.
Learning how to prepare and enjoy fresh, nutritious food is a large step in helping children develop healthy lifestyle habits, but Eunice said she realizes a multitude of factors impact student health.
“We can’t do everything, but we’re doing our part,” Eunice said. “We’re very proud that we’re providing healthy, fresh meals every day.”
Two preventative health programs for Alachua County students, FluMist and the School-Based Dental Sealant Initiative, have drawn national attention for their positive results. The programs not only keep students from becoming ill, they also help to educate kids on preventative care’s role in living a long, healthy life.
A collaboration among county government, the health department and the school district, FluMist provides influenza vaccinations to students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The program has dramatically cut the number of students who get the flu, according to Alachua County Health Department Director Paul Myers.
In 2014, 60 percent of elementary school children in Alachua County received the FluMist flu vaccine, and those who were immunized had a 15 percent lower absenteeism rate than those who were not, according to a report from ACHD. Alongside helping children to avoid the flu, the program has yielded data that helps UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute gauge the benefit of such programs, Myers said. “UF is the epicenter of research on immunizations,” he added.
The United Way of North Central Florida, the UF College of Dentistry and Santa Fe College’s School of Dental Hygiene work together locally to carry out the School-Based Dental Sealant Initiative at Alachua County schools. According to the United Way, tooth decay is the number one chronic childhood disease in the U.S., and students lose more than 51 million school hours each year due to dental-related illnesses.
The program primarily targets second graders, who generally have lost all of their baby teeth. The sealant helps to protect their adult teeth from decay, said Dr. Scott Tomar, chair of UF’s Department of Community Dentistry. UF dental students and faculty dentists also screen students for dental problems and refer them to dentists who participate in Florida KidCare, a Medicaid program funded by state and federal dollars.
“We’re connecting kids to services,” Tomar said. “We want to reach every kid in the county.”
Support and education for parents and caregivers in their child’s development of healthy lifestyle habits is an important piece of the overall puzzle. Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), a program offered through The Parents Academy championed by Superintendent Dr. Owen Roberts, facilitates biweekly in-home visits with parents of kids ages three, four and five. The staff teach parents about nutrition and other things regarding healthy lifestyles, such as getting kids to bed on time.
“Kids can’t learn if they’re sleepy. They can’t learn if they’re hungry,” said HIPPY Coordinator Terrie Robinson. “[The participants] care about their kids, but they need help that looks at them as a whole and understands that they’re intimidated in seeking resources.”
Nutrition guidelines can also be surprising to parents, noted Robinson.
“Your child needs only six ounces of juice in the morning, and the rest of what he needs is water,” Robinson said.
HIPPY staff provides practical training for parents, Robinson said, that incudes helping them learn to write down appointments (or put them in a cellphone) and plan exactly how long the trip will take. This is especially important for parents who utilize public transportation. Robison uses the example of a parent who plans to come from Linton Oaks, off Tower Road, to a HIPPY parent-child meeting at the Fearnside Family Services Center, located in Northeast Gainesville.
“We say, ‘You and Little Johnny will need to get on the bus at 4 o’clock to arrive by 5:30,’” Robinson said.
Another piece of advice taught to parents is to write down what you want to ask the doctor.
“Many of our parents are afraid to speak up,” Robinson said. “We’re teaching parents to become advocates for their child.”