Nearly 600 kids jumped to their feet and sang about nutrition at Apache Elementary School in Overland Park last week after representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded all 33 of the Shawnee Mission School District’s elementary schools bronze awards for the HealthierUS Schools Challenge. The challenge guidelines certify schools participating in the National School Lunch Program on three levels — gold, silver and bronze. To earn the bronze award, schools had to increase their offerings of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, offer only low- and non-fat milk and limit calories in meals, while also reducing the trans-fat, saturated fat and sodium content of the food.
Other facets of the program include an emphasis on better nutrition education in the classroom and encouraging kids to exercise more.
The healthier schools challenge “recognizes excellence in nutrition and physical activity,” said Cindy Long, director of the Child Nutrition Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.
The achievement is “quite an accomplishment,” Long said.
Thirty-one other schools in six school districts in the Kansas City area also received awards for their participation in the healthier schools challenge.
Darlene Sanchez, director of special nutrition programs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Shawnee Mission was the only school district in Kansas to qualify all its elementary schools for an award. Nationwide, about 4,100 schools have earned healthier schools awards.
Sanchez attributed the new healthier schools guidelines to the provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Sanchez came to speak at Friday’s assembly, accompanied by Power Panther, a costumed mascot for the federal department’s nutrition programs.
“The district has been committed to making menu changes for a number of years, and the state of Kansas in particular and this district have worked very hard to modify their menus so that their school meals are healthier,” Sanchez said.
Attending the assembly Friday were the entire student body of Apache Elementary School, Shawnee Mission’s superintendent, Gene Johnson, and most of the principals from the 33 elementary schools in the district. Each school also sent student representatives. Dressed in a circus ringmaster costume, Sue Stinson, Apache’s physical education teacher, led the students in an interactive summary of what they learned about nutrition at school.
The district broadcast the gathering live on its cable television station and online, allowing students at all the elementary schools to watch.
The assembly also drew local leaders such as board of education members Craig Denny, Joan Leavens and Sara Goodburn; U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder; Shawnee Chamber of Commerce member Linda Leeper; the mayors of Lenexa, Mission Woods and Westwood, as well as several representatives from the Kansas Department of Education.
Each school received two plaques and a banner to display in its building.
Shawnee Mission’s food services manager, Nancy Coughenour, said the changes came about through a collaborative effort with classroom teachers, physical education teachers, food service workers, school nurses, parents and community volunteers.
“It’s been a whole district coming together, knowing what’s important for kids,” Coughenour said.
According to Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition and wellness at the Kansas Department of Education, the state has provided training for all schools statewide, including 50 six-hour classes this summer, which drew more than 2,000 participants. These classes taught school food services workers how to plan menus and implement healthy eating guidelines.
Johnson said she has received calls from people in every state, asking to use parts of the training resources Kansas has produced.
“We have now in Kansas over 100 schools that have received the award, and we are just extremely proud of … the way they are embracing the changes to create healthy schools,” Johnson said. “We really believe that when kids eat healthy meals, eat breakfast and have increased physical activity, there are fewer absences. We know that they do better on testing. It just is a great resource to improve the academic achievements of our students.”