Healthy habits hit school lunchrooms, activities

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Dubois Elementary School cafeteria assistant cook Teresa Hopf, left, and head cook Patty Englert prepare lunch on Wednesday.


When it comes to getting kids to eat their veggies, the food service employees at local schools have a few tricks up their sleeves.

They’ve had quite a few years of practice. The 2010 federal law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, set new nutritional standards that required schools to increase the number of available fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk in schools while reducing the levels of sodium and fat in the foods they served.

Now, almost 10 years later, it’s unclear if the law has made a real impact on the health of kids in the United States. A new study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to health research — reports 16.6% of Hoosier youth are obese, according to 2017-18 data, and childhood obesity rates are high across the country.

While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may not have made a dent in childhood health issues, it has definitely changed school lunches. In the years since, that law has led to school service directors seeking ways to entice their students to “eat a rainbow,” as Jasper Food Service Director Katie Knies described it, which she believes has led to more balanced school lunches.

“Menus are planned specifically to meet nutritional guidelines,” Knies said.

Those guidelines include serving vegetables from each of the five vegetable subgroups each week. Those subgroups are: dark green; red and orange; beans and legumes; starchy; and other.

For the most part, Knies said, the students are good about eating the veggies, although beans seem to be the students’ least favorite, and there’s a little bit of grumbling about salad.

“I’ve heard kids call it rabbit food,” Knies said. “They say, ‘No I don’t want any of that rabbit food.’”

Dubois Elementary School cafeteria head cook Patty Englert of Dubois prepares apples for lunch on Wednesday. Englert has been head cook at Dubois for five years.

She figures that’s just part of the meat and potatoes German heritage of the community.

Although some Jasper students aren’t excited to find salad greens on their lunch trays, students at Huntingburg Elementary seek out the salad bar at their school, Southwest Dubois Food Service Director Ora Lee Cotton said. A few times a month, the school offers a fresh salad bar to the fourth- and fifth-graders as one of the school’s healthy living initiatives supported by the Upgrade grant from the Welborn Baptist Foundation. The grants award elementary and middle schools $15,000 a year for three years for health initiatives in the schools and the communities they serve.

The grant is another example of initiatives that teach kids healthy living, and several local schools have received the grant. Through the grant, schools get consultants from the Welborn Baptist Foundation that help them look at ways to transform their community’s wellness culture. For Huntingburg Elementary, adding a salad bar was something the Upgrade team came up with.

The key, Cotton said, seems to be to offer fresh fruits and veggies. She makes sure to offer her students a choice between two fruits and two veggies each day, and at least one of each is fresh.

“I have never had a problem with the kids,” she said. “They’ve always got it on their trays.”

A favorite among her students is corn. Across all grade levels, Cotton said, corn is a favorite.

As school administrators have shifted the focus in the lunchroom to more healthy habits, the practice has started to spill over into other school activities, such as classroom birthday celebrations, gym class and recess.

For local schools, the Upgrade grant has been a big part of that shift. Pine Ridge Elementary recently completed a walking trail project on its campus that gives staff and students another option for exercise throughout the day, and receiving the grant led administrators at Fifth and Tenth Street elementaries in Jasper to re-examine gym classes and recess. In fact, when the two schools merge into Jasper Elementary School for the 2020-21 school year, students will receive about 50% more recess time.

“And it’s not just more recess time,” Taylor said. “We are looking for ways to make recess more impactful.”

That has meant working with the schools’ Upgrade grant resources to offer staff trainings about how to offer better gym classes. Many local Upgrade schools have participated in gym class trainings through the Upgrade grant, and Taylor said they’ve been a great resource since many times, the classroom teachers are also the ones teaching gym.

Schools have also re-thought birthday parties, encouraging students to bring in healthier snacks on their special day rather than the cookies or cupcakes of the past.

Tenth Street took their birthday party changes to the next level and created a monthly school gathering where every birthday for that month is celebrated at once. Those celebrations often include a healthy snack. “We always try to emphasize that birthdays are about more than sweet treats,” Taylor said.

Although each school approaches healthy living initiatives differently, one thing seems certain: Over the last decade, healthy living has become a key part of the informal education public schools offer students, and those lessons don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

More on