The Sycamore Community Schools system in Cincinnati, Ohio, has already been recognized by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for their work toward a healthier school day—in the 2013-2014 school year, all seven schools earned the Bronze National Recognition Award. But the work didn’t stop there.
“Our main goal is trying to slowly build a better foundation for a healthy school environment,” said Jessica Johnson, food service director for Sycamore Community Schools. “We’re focusing efforts this year on building district policies to reduce the number of school parties and non-food rewards, increase the availability of healthy options in meals, revamp our vending machines and fundraising policies, and getting our staff to model good behavior.”
State legislation in 2006 created the School Physical Fitness and Wellness Advisory Council as a way to provide baseline guidance and best practices for schools to create their own wellness policies. However, schools are able and even encouraged to go above and beyond these general recommendations if possible.
Another large part of Johnson’s work this year has been finding innovative ways to increase access to breakfast programs in all schools.
In the fifth and sixth grade building, they have started offering a “second chance” breakfast for those not able to make it during regular breakfast hours. The second chance breakfast is a kiosk that sells grab-and-go items that students can eat in their classrooms.
At the large junior high school, buses drop students off in the mornings on one side of the building, and car riders are dropped off on the other. The problem? The cafeteria is on the side where the school buses drop off, and it was tough for car riders to get there and still make it to class on time.
To alleviate that issue, the school decided to utilize a vacant concession stand in the middle of the school as a second breakfast location with grab-and-go items so more students had access to a meal. The school also hosted an event during testing time where the Cincinnati Bengals’ mascot and player Rex Burkhead came to the school to promote breakfast. They offered lots of options, and students voted on their favorites—the winners made up the end-of-year breakfast menu.
At the high school, many seniors have the ability to have a late start. “We realized that just because they started late, didn’t mean they ate breakfast before they got to school—they were just sleeping late,” explained Johnson. To make sure that those students have the same access to breakfast, it has now been extended until third period (about 10:15 a.m.).
“It’s working,” Johnson said. “We have increased breakfast participation by 300 percent.”
The Sycamore Community Schools system is also quite unique. Its population of more than 5,500 students comes from more than 40 countries and speaks about 30 different languages.
“The diversity has been beneficial, because I can be more innovative with the types of foods I offer,” said Johnson. When walking through the lunchroom on any given day, she would see students with home-packed lunches eating everything from sushi to couscous. “Seeing the students eating these foods allowed me to motivate my kitchen staff to try new things!”
There was a little bit of resistance to the new foods, she says, but it didn’t last long. “When I put first put hummus on the menu, there was pushback and now it’s basically a staple!”
The schools have also started Fusian Fridays, where they offer students sushi prepared by a local restaurant called Fusian. Each sushi roll has been recreated to fall in line with the Smart Snacks in Schools guidelines by switching the white rice for brown rice and adding more veggies. They sell about 200 rolls each Friday.
“It’s really because of the diversity in our district that we were able to have such a success rate,” Johnson explained.
Sycamore schools were the first in Cincinnati to offer Fusian Fridays, which is now in its third year. Since then, schools across the state have reached out to them for more information on how they can offer a similar menu.
Johnson and colleagues are also focusing on healthy vending. They have eliminated machines from all schools except the junior high and high schools, and the only machines available to those students all day are in line with nutrition guidelines. The vending machines that don’t quite meet requirements yet have been restricted to only certain times of availability, and have been moved to be off the beaten path. And all vending machines in the district have removed items with trans fats and items that are more than one serving per package.
“We still have a ways to go,” said Johnson. “But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”