Wednesday, November 18, 2009

HealthierUS Schools Challenge: Michelle Obama, Secretary Vilsack Visit Hollin Meadows School

Update: Hollin Meadows students have joined Mrs. Obama in the White House Kitchen Garden; read about their June 2010 visit here.
Succeeding against the odds, to change the odds of success
First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Hollin Meadows Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia today, to honor the school for participation in the HealthierUS Schools Challenge. Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack have put a much-needed focus on better school foods and physical fitness, and Hollin Meadows is succeeding admirably.  (Above: Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack with a Hollin Meadows student; they handed out fruit in the cafeteria line).

The school includes nutrition education and physical activity in the core curriculum, and has an excellent lunch program. These are all criteria for the Challenge, a USDA program that was created in 2004. But Hollin Meadows has gone beyond the Challenge criteria: There's a breakfast program in addition to lunch, and the school grounds include a food garden. School officials have also focused on creating a school community, with home visits, daily morning meetings, and all-school meetings. With a fifty percent poverty rate among families, it's a critical project for Hollin Meadows; for many students, the school is the most stable environment available.

The visit was a surprise for students, who weren't informed until this morning that the First Lady would be visiting. She was greeted with cheers in the school cafeteria as she arrived at lunchtime. Mrs. Obama made brief remarks, and said she was thrilled to be visiting Hollin Meadows, because "it shows us that even when there are few resources there are ways to improve what we're doing in nutrition and fitness."

"You know, we know the statistics, we know that the school lunch and nutrition program is a major part of kids' lives because so many kids are getting most of their meals here," Mrs. Obama said. "And we also know that we can do better in those areas, because those programs, the low rates of vegetables and fruits in those meals and the high rates of foods that have high calories probably plays a role in some of the statistics the we hear, that one in three kids in this country are obese."

Sec. Vilsack said precisely the same thing yesterday, while testifying before the Senate Agriculture Committee, for a hearing on the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (scheduled to occur after the New Year). He called out the HealthierUS Schools Challenge as essential to boosting the efforts of federal feeding initiatives to promote wellness, and pointed out the critical importance of better foods, such as dark leafy green vegetables and dark orange vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.

Sec. Vilsack also called for all schools to provide the kind of school food information to parents and students that Hollin Meadows already has available on their website. And he noted that providing healthy breakfasts as well as lunches for students is critically important, because many students are not getting enough nutritious foods at home, which was detailed in a new report on Household Food Security that USDA released on Monday, which found that 49 million Americans do not have an adequate supply of healthy food regularly available. That's one in four children in America.

Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack visited the school garden, another important part of the school's nutrition education efforts. The First Lady helped students harvest lettuce, which is still growing very well, despite cold temperatures. It will be used for the school's special Thanksgiving luncheon. (In the garden, above)

"We do the same thing in our garden at the White House," Mrs. Obama said to the students, as they dug up the lettuce by its roots and tapped off the topsoil.

At Hollin Meadows, students actually participate in the planning of the menus, with tasting and rating sessions. They're learning about nutrition, as well as setting up life-long habits, in addition to ensuring that school meals will be something that kids like. The school food website gives ingredient and calorie counts for breakfast and lunches, a comparison of school lunch vs. home made lunch (school lunches are a bargain, and promoted as healthier), food safety information, dietary guidelines, and an explanation of how menus are planned. All of that is critical information for both parents and students. And (Photo: Hollin Meadows students at a menu-tasting party)

During the Healthy Kids Fair at the White House, Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack announced their plans to expand the Healthier US Schools Challenge program to many more schools in the coming months. Currently, it's in about 635 schools, and Mrs. Obama and USDA are seeking to bring it into middle and high schools, with the First Lady making a promise to visit schools that successfully take the Challenge. The whole-child approach, which includes not just better foods, but an emphasis on physical activity, is critical for combating obesity and other diet-related disease in children.

*Related:  More about the HealthierUS Schools Challenge here, at USDA's website. Mrs. Obama's full remarks at Hollin Meadows School are here.