Healthy Schools

Helping kids make smart food choices

Pick Chow is the leading feature of the ZisBoomBah website.

Vegetables have never been lacking in the meals Boulder nutritionist Jane Reagan serves her four children, and the kids have never objected. But even she was surprised when she got an email from the kids requesting kale and red cabbage.

“I was surprised at how well-balanced their suggested meal was,” said Reagan, “how important it was for them to them to fill up all the sections of their plate.”

That “plate” was a virtual one on a computer screen, and it’s up to Reagan to turn it into an actual meal. But she figures getting the kids involved early in their meal planning and developing an understanding of how to balance the fiber, protein and fat — and limit the sugar, salt and saturated fat — can only be a good thing.

That’s why she is a consultant for ZisBoomBah, a sophisticated but kid-friendly 2-year-old Boulder company whose website is drawing national attention. The site is in the running for Michelle Obama’s nationwide Apps for Healthy Kids competition, part of her Let’s Move! Campaign to end childhood obesity. Voting in that contest, open to anyone who registers online, continues through Friday.

The site – – includes kid-pleasing but nutritious recipes from chefs around the country, a section on suggestions for games and activities to get kids moving, a blog geared toward parents and a store featuring products that display the likenesses of Zis, Boom and Bah, the friendly ants – or “ant-vatars” who appear throughout the website.

How to vote
Check out the contestants in the “Apps for Healthy Kids” competition and vote here by the end of the day Friday.

But the real draw is the “PickChow” feature. The page has a plate divided into five sections – vegetables, dairy, grains, meat and beans, and fruit. A smaller dessert plate is just to the right of the main plant.

Kids scroll through pictures of dozens of foods available to fill up the main plate. Everything from artichokes to zucchini for the vegetable section, apples to watermelon in the fruit section. There are also some “quick picks” that fill up multiple sections, such as a grilled cheese sandwich (dairy AND grains), or turkey meatloaf (meat, veggies, dairy and grains). They drag their chosen items over onto their plate.

Colorado choices
Zisboombah is one of three Colorado contestants in the national competition. The others:
* Hungry Hiker Build-A-Meal game – Asks kids to build a nutritious meal to fuel a hiker’s journey to a mountain summit.
* How Wheat Works tool – Kids can virtually grow, harvest and mill their own kernels to create their desired wheat food.

As they add items to their plate, gauges calculate the meal’s carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber, as well as the sugar, fat and sodium. The goal is to keep all the gauges in the nutritious green zone. Meals get rated from one to five stars, and those who assemble a five-star meal get to choose a dessert.

“It’s hard to build a five-star meal,” said Reagan. “But it’s good practice for them. My kids seem to love it. They like clicking and dragging the different foods, and being able to watch that sugar meter, especially, is really helpful because that one can climb quickly.”

Once their meal is complete, their parents will get an email with the child’s suggested meal.

“They’re always excited for me to get the emails, and to have some say in what they’re going to have for dinner,” Reagan said. “It’s important for parents to follow up on that, to act on the kids suggestions. Even if it’s just one meal a week. One or two meals a week that a child is involved in planning and creating will give them more of a sense of power and more understanding of the importance of nutrition.”

The site is the creation of Boulder entrepreneur Karen Laszlo. Laszlo’s background is in marketing and finance, not nutrition, but she’s a mom who knows about the struggles of getting children to eat properly.

Ant avatars Zis, Boom and Bah help youngsters navigate through the website. Youngsters can also choose their own avatars.

“She wanted to change the way nutrition is presented to children,” said Mary Kate McKenna, product manager for the year-old company. “She wanted to kind of flip conventional wisdom about teaching children about meal planning and instead give them an online tool.”

The site is self-funded for now, but McKenna says they are looking to eventually promote ads and partnerships on the site: “We’re looking for companies that can add value to our website by offering parents coupons or discounts, so it will make the things we’re trying to promote more affordable.”

Should ZisBoomBah win the $10,000 prize for best Healthy Kids app, that money would be plowed back into the site, McKenna said.

“We would hope to start a school nutrition program where teachers could use our site as a tool in teaching the nutrition curriculum,” she said.

Rebecca Jones can be reached at [email protected].

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.