GERVAIS, Ore. - When you walk into the freezer at Gervais Middle School you’ll find familiar school cafeteria food. A box of corn dogs sit on a shelf just above even more boxes filled with hamburger buns.
But in the Gervais School District the school grub has a healthy twist. All the buns are made with whole wheat and the corn dogs are made with lower-fat turkey meat and whole wheat.
If it’s going in young mouths district nutrition services director, Clare Columbus, wants to make sure it’s healthy.
“We’ve switched to whole grains and then we introduced our harvest of the month program, so we’re introducing more fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. She also tries to buy the fruit and veggies from local farmers whenever possible.
This past summer Columbus and her team at the Gervais School District earned national recognition for their efforts from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. Three of the districts’ four schools received the Alliance’s bronze award for promoting healthy living.
To earn the award, the district had to take a number of steps, including serving fresh fruit, serving only low- or non-fat milk, offering a non-fried fish dish once a week and teaching nutrition and physical education outside the lunchroom.
They also took dessert off the menu and removed unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks from vending machines.
“Some of the things we did were maybe not so popular with the students at first,” Columbus said. Still, she said, eventually students and staff got used to and even embraced the changes.
Winning the hearts and minds of students isn’t the only challenge, though. Consider the cost of those whole wheat corn dogs: they’re double the price of traditional corn dogs.
Gervais receives grant money to cover part of the costs. They also benefit from the fact they serve such a large low-income population. The vast majority of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which mean the district gets large federal subsidies for food. They get close to three dollars a meal for a subsidized student and only about 26 cents for a non-subsidized student, Columbus said.
Outside the classroom, students are taught the value of good nutrition and exercise.
“We put together a weight-training program that went from February all the way until the end of the year,” said Shandel Jump, the Gervais High School after-school program coordinator. “It ran every Tuesday and Thursday and most of my kids were involved in that weight training program.”
At Brooks Elementary School, kids still do arts and crafts, but they keep a focus on healthy living.
“We still pulled in some of those crafts, but instead of doing origami and that kind of thing they were doing a vegetable book,” said Jennifer Uribe, a site coordinator at the elementary school.
So if the Gervais School District can find success with healthier food and programs, why can’t all districts?
“I would say time, time and commitment.” Columbus said. “You really have to have several champions on your school district, maybe a school board member as well, and some community members and maybe some parents to get the word out and get it going.”