The Other 60 Percent

Healthy classroom parties gain momentum

Last year, Jennifer Herivel was surprised by the “no junk food” decree that came from her son’s kindergarten teacher as the annual Halloween classroom party approached.

Spooky healthy snacks were served to students at a classroom Halloween party at Fort Collins’ Bauder Elementary School. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

But Herivel, whose son Brayden is now a first-grader at Redstone Elementary in Highlands Ranch, gamely cooperated, pulling together a buffet of fruits, vegetables and popcorn.

Herivel, who served as room mother for the class, also arranged a healthy spread for the winter holiday party. Some parents, especially those with older children who got sweet treats in their classrooms, griped about the restriction. So, organizers allowed Rice Krispies treats.

“We kind of pushed the envelope,” Herivel said.

Reflecting on the experience a year later, Herivel is grateful that Brayden had such a health-conscious teacher and a kindergarten experience so focused on healthy foods.

“I look back on it and it’s not like the kids cared,” Herivel said. “The kids would sit and eat the veggies… They’ll eat whatever’s in front of them.”

Herival said Brayden never complained about the dearth of treats in his classroom and continues to be a healthy eater this year in first grade. She’s seen him pass up cupcakes and other sweets even when they are available in his classroom.

While Herivel’s experience may not be the norm, the push for healthy foods at school celebrations is growing in many Colorado schools. In some cases, it’s new wellness policies that have created the momentum. In others, it’s wellness coordinators, parents, teachers or principals who are experimenting with creative new ideas for throwing healthy classroom parties.

Prompting these changes is a growing awareness that childhood obesity is a widespread problem and that public schools can play a key role in turning the tide.

“More and more people are recognizing what a toxic food environment we have,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance coordinator for LiveWell Colorado, an organization focused on reducing obesity.

There’s also a growing awareness about the connection between food and academic achievement, said Levine.

“Filling kids with sugar isn’t good for learning.”

Changing the culture

To Brian Carpenter, principal of Bauder Elementary in Fort Collins, the path to healthier party food comes down to changing habits and mindsets, usually of adults who grew up with sugary spreads at their own classroom parties. It’s not about replacing all sweet treats with vegetables, he said, but finding a balance between the two.

“You can have a cookie. Cookies are not the end of the world, but if that’s all we’re offering, that’s not OK.”

Fun activities at a classroom Halloween party at Bauder Elementary School in Fort Collins. <em>Photo courtesy Brian Carpenter</em>

Earlier this year at Bauder, which  has a wellness focus, Carpenter worked with the four third grade teachers to pilot a healthier Halloween party. At the party, healthy foods were presented with a fun twist. Carrots and yellow squash were laid out on plates to look like jack-o’-lanterns. Students were also asked to create several Halloween-themed food sculptures using a variety of items, including cheese sticks, bananas, almonds, apples, green peppers, chocolate cookies and chocolate kisses.

Finally, the third grade teachers pooled some of their classroom funds to pay for a substitute physical education teacher. That freed up the regular p.e. teacher to run an obstacle course in the gym for the party. Later this winter, Carpenter hopes to expand some of the third grade initiatives to other grades.

Carpenter admits that breaking with the tradition of sugar-laden school parties can cause friction.

“You’re always going to have this faction of people who say, ‘I’m so tired of wellness. I’m so tired of nutrition.”

Overall though, he’s heard very few critical comments about Bauder’s healthier party approach. When parents stop by their child’s classroom party they see kids “having a great time.”

Efforts to shift the focus of classroom parties away from food are also underway in Weld County District 6. To that end, wellness specialist Jenna Schiffelbein used grant money to purchase 16 classroom party kits that have themes like bingo, board games, charades or dance party. The dance party kit, which includes a boom box, age-appropriate CDs and a disco ball, has proved especially popular so far.

Food focus is hard to shake

Marcella Lunt, the mother of two boys who attend Skyview Elementary in Windsor, has found that it’s not always easy to shake holiday traditions that have long depended on an abundance of baked goods and candy.

Lunt, who is the room mother for her first-grade son’s class, said when soliciting party contributions from other parents she doesn’t ask for anything but healthy snacks. She also refrains from using candy as a prize in party games.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away.” – Marcella Lunt, parent

Discussing plans for this Friday’s holiday party, Lunt said, “I don’t want to disappoint parents or children by not having what they see as traditional or festive, but I know these kids are getting candy canes around every corner.”

Plus, she’s discovered through experience that sweets creep in to class parties, invited or not. She brought a small bag of Tootsie Rolls to her first-grader’s Halloween party just in case there were no sweets at all. One parent brought in “dirt cup” pudding treats and another brought cookies. There were also goodie bags containing some candy that went home with the children. She opted not to open up the bag of candy she brought.

Ultimately, Lunt says she’s comfortable with parents contributing the occasional dessert item for classroom parties and noted that she usually allows for a “make-your-own” activity incorporating sweets.

“I do think kids will eat the healthy stuff if the other stuff is not put out right away,” Lunt said.

Wellness policies weigh in

Many schools and districts have created guidelines and policies that outline acceptable food options for school functions, including classroom parties. For example, the Poudre School District in Fort Collins specifies in its “Strategic Direction” document that 50 percent of food at school-sponsored functions should be fruits, vegetables or non-sugar sweetened beverages.

“Ultimately, It’s up to the principal to encourage that among teachers,” said the district’s wellness coordinator Ashley Schwader.

In Weld County District 6, the wellness policy requires that healthy food options make up 100 percent of party fare, up from 50 percent in the old policy. The policy, which was updated in 2011, also includes a detailed description of what qualifies as “healthy,” detailing the maximum percentage of fat, saturated fat and sugar permitted.

There’s still a long way to go, said Schiffelbein, the wellness specialist.

“It’s hard to know everything that’s going on. You certainly don’t want to be the food police.”

Tracy Faigin Boyle, vice president of marketing and communications for LiveWell Colorado, led the health and wellness committee at Lowry Elementary in Denver when it drew up wellness guidelines suggesting that healthy food always be included in classroom parties. Some teachers think it’s great; others like to give out treats, she said.

The committee also worked with the school’s cafeteria manager to make a tasty cafeteria item available for in-school birthday and holiday celebrations. Topped with a light cream cheese frostings, the sweet potato muffins are now called “Lowry Soar Cupcakes” and can be ordered by parents for 25 cents each.

Does her third- grade daughter like them?

“They look like cupcakes so she’s fine with that.”

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.