By SHANNON WATKINS
“I tell you, I wanted to do the happy dance when I found out we got it,” said Connie Wood. “I was so happy and so proud of our schools and our managers and our staff.”
Normally people associate this level of excitement in the scholastic realm with sports victories or academic triumph. Wood, assistant to the director of school nutrition for Pulaski County Schools, is pleased with helping win an award for something much more basic: lunch.
Pulaski County elementary schools won the Healthier U.S. School Challenge’s Silver Award, gained by reaching exacting and demanding nutritional criteria. The Healthier U.S. School Challenge (HUSSC) was established to recognize schools that are creating healthier school environments by promoting good nutrition and physical activity.
The challenge is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, and brought about by the Healthy Hunger Free Child Act of 2010, along with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. There are four levels of superior performance awarded: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Gold of Distinction.
“We’re the only division in this part of the state that’s been awarded,” said School Nutrition Supervisor Ethelene Sadler, who Wood works with. “We’re pretty proud of that.”
The challenge requires schools to track and record detailed data about the food they serve, including the type, how often and how much, and to see if it meets the government standards. Wood, along with School Nutritional Director Ethelene Sadler, worked hard to gather the data to be submitted for the prize.
“There was a lot to it,” says Wood. “We had to make sure all production records were correctly labeled. We had to have labels off of prepackaged food that showed calories. We had to give the amount of food used and what was left over and what portion sizes were used. Everything had to be consistent.” The application process was a collaborated effort involving school principals, cafeteria managers and staff, PTO representatives and physical education teachers. The formal application package was submitted to the Virginia Department of Education/School Nutrition Programs. Once it was approved at the state level, the application package was sent for final approval to the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services.
“We were actually ahead of the game because we knew it was coming,” said Wood. “Ethelene and I worked together to get ready for these new changes.”
“We did this just to get a jump start on the regulations,” Sadler agrees. “That came about from the Let’s Move! campaign and the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. Of course now we’re under the new meal pattern regulations.” Before the act was passed in 2010, she says, regulations required a slightly different meal pattern for kindergarten through eighth grade. For instance, meals had to have 12 grain components a week but not necessarily whole grains, which were seldom discussed, and calories weren’t counted.
After the act, foods have to fall within acceptable calorie ranges, certain vegetable groups have to be served, there must be fruit every day and whole grains must be served at least three times a week. Nutrients are analyzed and posted at HYPERLINK “http://www.pcva.us/”www.pcva.us, so parents can get detailed information on what kids’ meal options are.
“It was very difficult to meet the criteria. We almost got discouraged,” says Sadler. She says Wood submitted the data for approval in May of 2012, but only recently were they notified that they received the Silver Award. “It took all of this time for us to get notified,” she says. “Connie’s the one that really organized it when we did all this. She had to gather all the data. It was a huge undertaking.”
The award entails each elementary school getting $1,000, the use of which hasn’t been decided.
“I haven’t completely made up my mind yet, but one idea we have is to buy signage boards, because meal components have to be identified up front,” said Sadler. “It would be visible when children come in to get their lunch. You can use pictures or words on them. That’s an idea that we’re kicking around.”
“I’m just very proud of what our school nutrition program has accomplished,” said Wood.