From national policy to your kids’ lunchroom: How King County nutrition directors worked together for healthier school meals

CTGlogo2After the President signs a health bill into law and the celebratory press conferences are over, the real, on-the-ground work begins. Here in King County, nearly 3,000 miles away from Washington, DC, schools and school districts are continuing to implement an instrumental healthy food policy that was passed over four years ago.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, effectively changed the school meal as we know it. This meant that nutrition services staff and directors had to understand all the complexities of the new policy.

Staff and the Food Rangers, characters developed through the SLN to help promote healthy eating.
Staff and the Food Rangers, characters developed through the SLN to help promote healthy eating.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
The USDA now requires that schools:

  • Offer a wider variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables at meals;
  • Offer fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limit the amount of calories in meals;
  • Reduce saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium in meals;
  • Adopt a new school wellness policy that is specific about nutrition promotion and education; and
  • Offer only foods and beverages that meet the “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards outside of the school meal program.

Coming together in the School Learning Network
With help from the Community Transformation Grant and led by Seattle Public Schools, nutrition directors from Seattle, Kent, Renton, Northshore, Auburn, Highline, and Tukwila school districts formed the School Learning Network (SLN). SLN members met about 8 times a year to learn from each other, swap stories, and figure out how to best implement these changes for their collective 81,000 students.

For nutrition staff, convening with others provided much-needed support. As one participant said, “The whole first year was really great to just have a sounding board for the struggles that we were all encountering and knowing that we’re all in this together.”

SLN participants reported incredible benefits, including:

  • Opportunities to network
  • Resources and ideas for adhering to the federal nutritional guidelines for school food
  • Ideas for promoting healthy school food
  • Strategies for developing district wellness committees and nutrition policies

One participant noted, “We had a lot of trouble getting the kids to take a half-cup of fruit or vegetable. So then hearing the other districts saying, ‘Well, we put out a fruit bowl, or we put out strawberries once a week to get them excited,’ and so it was hearing what worked in other places.”

“Working in this field, it’s so valuable to have the opportunity to partner with other Directors of School Meal Programs throughout the region—to mentor each other and to share resources …This network gave us a new opportunity to not only educate ourselves about new nutrition standards, but also our staff, students and families,” said Wendy Weyer, Director of Nutrition Services at Seattle Public Schools.

Creating common resources

Together, the participants in the School Learning Network created new resources, including frameworks to use in district policy planning efforts, marketing graphics and products for the school meal promotions and Harvest of the Month campaigns (campaigns focusing on one local produce item each month), communication products, and a media release to address changes in school meals and snacks for families.

As one participant said, “We did have these materials that we were able to just tweak, put our logo on, change the wording a bit, and then send it out to our families. It saved us a lot of time and labor.”

The work of nutrition directors and staff won’t stop here as the food landscape in schools is often changing. Participants in the School Learning Network hope to continue working together on the implementation of Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act as well as other issues such menu planning and collaborative purchasing in the future.

This blog post is part of a series highlighting successful initiatives as part of the Community Transformation Grant (CTG). In September 2012, partners Seattle Children’s Hospital, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and the Healthy King County Coalition (HKCC) received a grant to work with local governments, schools, hospitals, low-income housing groups, and community organizations to improve the health of communities in South Seattle and South King County. Find out more here: www.kingcounty.gov/health/ctg.