SAD 61 honored by White House

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

HONORED AT THE WHITE HOUSE — SAD representatives and their guests are shown here on the South Lawn at the White House during the HealthierUS School Challenge Celebration. Pictured (left to right) Sue Kennedy; Courtney Kennedy, SAD 61 School Health Coordinator; Jamel Torres; Ramona Torres, SAD 61 Wellness Committee Representative; Connie Madura; and Andy Madura, SAD 61 Director of Food Service, Maintenance and Transportation.

Andy Madura admits he was a “Doubting Thomas” when School Health Coordinator Courtney Kennedy told him fresh fish was on the menu.

It sounded good, “Fresh fish with whole wheat bread crumbs sitting on a lemon slice,” but Madura wondered how sometimes finicky teenagers would respond.

“The businessman side of me worried that the fish cost $5.99 a pound and the kids wouldn’t eat it,” he said.

Kennedy, however, was confident the meal would be a hit.

“I was in the building on fish day, and the amount of staff eating in the cafeteria was really exciting. They (teachers) were talking about it and asking students if they had tried it,” she said. “It sold out. One teacher told me she didn’t get there in time, and she would have to get there sooner the next time.”

Gone are the days of “green hot dogs” and “pizza crust that taste like cardboard.” There is a new look and new attitude in school kitchens, which has earned SAD 61 national recognition.

Last month, Madura, Kennedy and Wellness Committee member Ramona Torres were guests of First Lady Michelle Obama as they were honored on South Lawn of the White House as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge Celebration.

SAD 61 was a bronze medalist, recognizing the district’s “excellence in nutrition and physical activity.”

“Even more impressive is that Lake Region Middle School was the only middle school in the State of Maine to reach any qualification of the HealthierUS Challenge,” Kennedy said.

SAD 61 was recognized for its work at LRMS, Stevens Brook Elementary, Songo Locks School and Sebago Elementary School.”

“What impressed me (about the celebration) was the amount of time they spent with us. I had visions that this would be a ‘feel good’ thing by the Obama Administration, and we would be rushed in and rushed out. There was a fair amount of thought put into it. Their chefs were there to share recipes. The president and first lady’s trainers were there to offer some tips. The first lady really listened to the people there and worked the crowd,” said Madura, who was making his first trip to the White House. “It wasn’t just a formality. It was obvious that this was something important.”

Kennedy pointed out that the South Lawn is often only used for diplomatic or political events, and to use it for a celebration of nutrition spoke volumes about the importance of this work.

“People were really excited about changes being made when it comes to nutrition and schools,” she said.

The first lady congratulated educators and school administrators on their “creative efforts” — from developing school gardens, running clubs and fitness competitions — during tight economic times to offer children more nutritious meals and promoting the importance of daily physical activity.

“In our movement to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in America, all of you — our nation’s educators — you are the unsung heroes…As educators, you see firsthand the impact that childhood obesity has on our children’s lives. You see it every day. Not just on their physical and emotional health, but on their academic success as well,” the first lady said. “You know better than anyone that kids need time and space to run around before they can settle down and concentrate in a classroom. You know they need nutritious food in their stomachs before they can focus their brains on math and reading and science. You see it every day. And when many kids spend half of their waking hours and get up to half their daily calories at school, you know that with the food you serve, and more importantly, the lessons you teach that you’re not just shaping their habits and preferences today, you’re affecting the choices they’re going to make for the rest of their lives.”

Mrs. Obama added, “We can affect who they will be forever. You’re affecting not just how these kids feed themselves, but how they’re going to feed their own children. So, the beauty is, is that you’re not just making this generation of kids healthier, but the next generation as well. And that is truly, truly powerful stuff.”

Last year, the first lady challenged U.S. schools to double the number participating in the HUSSC. That goal was achieve, and Mrs. Obama encouraged those in attendance to “double the double” by qualifying more schools within their systems, as well as reaching out to neighboring districts to “take the challenge.”

“When our schools win, our kids win. And when our kids win, our country wins. That’s why we make this investment,” Mrs. Obama added.

A little over 1,600 schools nationwide received the award — that is less then 1% of school. Forty-four of the schools receiving awards were from the State of Maine with four of those schools from SAD 61.

The HealthierUS School Challenge is a voluntary initiative, established in 2004, to recognize schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity.

Mrs. Obama incorporated the HealthierUS School Challenge as part of her “Let’s Move” initiative and offered monetary incentives to schools that qualified for bronze, silver or gold status. HUSSC identifies schools that have made changes to improve the quality of the foods served, provide students with nutrition education, and provide students with physical education and opportunities for physical activity.

“Mrs. Obama’s recognition of our efforts emphasizes the importance of teaching our kids about healthy eating and physical activity,” Kennedy said. “We intend to strive for an even higher level of achievement during this upcoming school year.”

SAD 61’s focus on offering more nutritious meals and more daily physical activities comes at a critical time.

• From youth surveys, one in three kindergarteners and one in four middle/high school students in the State of Maine are overweight or obese.

• According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System — a survey system for adults — almost 70% of Lake Region community members are considered overweight or obese (the rate is 61% for Cumberland County adults) — a rate that is slightly higher than the state average.

• Maine has the highest rates of obesity in New England.

“We’ve done some good things here to change the culture when it comes to nutrition,” Kennedy added. “But, there is plenty of work to do.”

Madura feels SAD 61 has been somewhat “ahead of the curve” in Maine thanks to some early work done by then-Stevens Brook Elementary School Principal Bev Chalmers, whose school secured a Hidden Valley Ranch grant that targeted adding more fresh fruit and fresh vegetables to the daily menu. He noted that SAD 61 could have achieved bronze status earlier, but “the necessary paperwork hadn’t been filed.”

When the Hidden Valley grant ended, SAD 61 was fortunate to be selected for the Healthy Lakes Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) — one of two local programs in Maine that received funding in March 2010 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Maine was awarded $4.28 million by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) initiative. Healthy Portland, a program of the City of Portland received $1.8 million of that, and Healthy Lakes received $1.4 million for a two-year period.

The Lake Region initiative is led by the People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP), a nonprofit, multi-service community action agency, and serves nine rural towns including: Baldwin, Bridgton, Casco, Harrison, Naples, Sebago, Raymond, Standish and Windham.

The primary objective is to make long-lasting and sustainable changes to positively impact the general health of the Lake Region community by increasing access to healthy food and physical activity opportunities so as to decrease overweight and obesity rates, Kennedy said.

Changing the culture

At a time when the general public is looking to eat healthier, selling the idea to teens and children remains a challenge.

Kennedy spends a lot of time spreading the word about increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables through signs at local cafeterias, as well as working with teachers to incorporate the message as part of lesson plans.

Another part of “healthy eating” has been a switch in products. White bread has been replaced by whole grain. Low-fat cheese is used more often. To introduce students to new items, “samplings” are held. One upcoming “sampling” at Lake Region Middle School will be parfaits made from yogurt and frozen fruit.

“Andy and his crew have taken recipes that the kids like and tweaked them to be better nutritionally,” Kennedy said. “We’re seeing a great response. There is little to no food waste at the high school. The kids there are just loving the salad bar.”

Kennedy credited the food service staff for “getting on board with the changes” by attending special training sessions and “doing an amazing job talking with students about the changes we’ve made.”

While healthy eating may be in “vogue,” Madura has to be a juggler — he has to be somewhat frugal in balancing costs of fresh and locally-grown food items with a tight operating budget.

“We have a huge free and reduced meal population here (63% of students at Stevens Brook Elementary and just over 50% district wide), and must maintain meal prices under this federal program,” Madura said. “If we can, we try to do more ‘scratch cooking’ because items with preservatives cost more. If we free up some money, then we can buy more local and fresh items.”

Madura and Kennedy strongly encourage parents who may think they qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch to fill out an application.

“We want to be sure that anyone who qualifies does receive those benefits,” Kennedy said. “We want to be sure we’re feeding all kids. We don’t want them leaving any of our buildings hungry.”

SAD 61 has changed how students pay for lunch each day. Today, each student — kindergarten through high school — receives a PIN number. When the student enters the food line, the PIN is entered and the student’s name appears. Meal charges are applied to that student’s account. All meal finances are administered through Madura’s office, not the individual schools.

“This way, there is greater student privacy. If a person’s account is low, we can simply contact parents to let them know. No one knows on the lunch line whether a student is paying or is part of the free or reduced lunch program. We will not talk about it (a student’s account) curbside. Soon, payment on accounts can be made online,” Madura said. “I’ve seen more bounced checks than I ever had before. This system allows us to work with people confidentially, whether to work out a payment plan or hook them up with local welfare folks.”

Technology will also help relay important nutritional news. Madura foresees a “ticker” board inside the new high school cafeteria, which will indicate calorie counts and other important nutritional facts.

“Things are certainly changing. It’s a fun time to be involved in food service,” Madura said. “We’ll be able to do more things once we have our new kitchen at the high school. We’ll be able to purchase various items at harvest time and ‘flash freeze’ them to be used later on. We’re thinking outside of the box, which is becoming a win-win situation from both a cost and nutritional standpoint.”

As first lady Michelle Obama said at the celebration, “We know when our schools win, our kids win.”

Courtney Kennedy couldn’t agree more.

“I feel fortunate to be part of a school district that is committed to healthy eating and how it relates to educational success,” she said. “Food servings and physical activity all help create a healthy student and increases academic success.”

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