I was preparing snacks for my daughter’s lunch, and I handed her a bag of cucumber spears. “That’s OK,” she said, “We don’t need to bring healthy snacks this year. Mrs. X isn’t our teacher anymore.” I laughed to myself at the time, but then I thought about the bigger picture: My daughter’s first grade teacher understood the importance of healthy snacks, so she created an environment in which the kids were motivated to bring them! (They received prizes after eating healthy snacks in 10-day increments). It was a great year, and for a change, my daughter was happy and proud to bring healthy snacks to school. Once the incentive program disappeared the next year, unfortunately, so did my daughter’s interest in bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to school.
There is an abundant amount of research supporting the idea that “when students’ basic nutritional and physical activity needs are met, they are able to attain higher achievement levels” (CDC, 2015). The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) have created a whole framework for addressing the nutrition environment in school, in order to encourage students to make healthy choices. The WSCC (Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child) Framework includes suggestions such as these:
• Incorporating smart snacks in school. All food sold in school and in school vending machines should meet the USDA nutritional guidelines for smart snacks in school.
• Drinking water. Schools should allow students to carry water bottles and fill them with clean water during the day. This is especially important during lunch period and gym class.
• School breakfast. Breakfasts should offer whole-grain cereals, fresh fruits/vegetables and low-fat milk.
• School lunches. School lunches should meet USDA standards including the use of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low sodium.
• Staff role modeling. Demonstrating healthy choices sends a clear message to students about the importance of consuming healthy food and drinks.
• School and classroom celebrations. Whenever possible, avoid using food incentives as rewards. Extra recess time, stickers and leadership opportunities are all positive incentives that don’t rely on food. In particular, avoid using candy as incentives, limit the amount of unhealthy foods for class parties and promote healthy choices for class parties.
• Grow your own. Encourage school gardens and field trips to local farms, and offer healthy-cooking classes.
• Healthy off campus. School should network with convenience stores and eateries in close proximity to schools and encourage them to offer incentives for healthier meal options for students.
Most of these suggestions can be implemented at the preschool, grade school, and especially high school level.
I have two more suggestions that I feel are worth mentioning. Many of our younger children wake up early, get ready for school and then spend up to an hour on the bus before starting their school day. They might not be hungry at 7:00 a.m. when parents encourage them to eat breakfast, but they are likely very hungry by the time they arrive at school at 8:30. Yet breakfast is not incorporated into some elementary school schedules until students are in junior high (or not at all). So perhaps our Jewish day schools can consider adding a short breakfast period before davening to ensure that these young children are starting their day optimally.
My second suggestion is addressed to the entire institution but especially our high schools. I love walking through different schools, noticing the students’ hard work on the bulletin boards, feeling the energy of so many students’ learning—but I wince when I observe high sugar/high fat treats used as incentives. This ranges from the sugar cereals provided for daily breakfasts in some high schools, monthly Rosh Chodesh treats; the back-to-school Rita’s truck; the classroom or whole-school siyum(s); Friday night onegs etc. I do not propose eliminating these sweets completely, because I still believe there is a time and place for celebrations. But perhaps we could make some better choices like improving the breakfast cereal selection that is offered to the students, providing donut holes on Chanukah instead of regular size donuts, and offering other healthier (but still exciting) choices like smoothies or a salad bar on certain occasions.
I feel that our local yeshiva day schools are doing a fantastic job ensuring that our children are academically strong and prepared for their future. Yet to insure good health, I believe that each school should create a wellness plan to outline school health policies around important issues such as nutrition and physical activity since they directly affect our children’s academic performance. Perhaps if we implemented a framework such as the WSCC Framework, my daughter and her classmates would see that nutrition is important in every single classroom, not just for the teacher who offers incentives for bringing these healthy snacks to school.
Chaya Lebovic is a certified health education specialist with a master’s in public health. She received additional training in the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child approach to school wellness and is available for consultations.