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Partnering with Parents Creates a Healthy School Food Culture at Manzanita Elementary

Laura E. Saponara serves as a Senior Communications Consultant for Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit.

A zero-tolerance approach to junk food may be tempting to wellness champions working at the forefront of the school nutrition revolution.

Zoe Mathews, one of more than 70 Wellness Champions who work in Oakland Unified School District
Zoe Mathews, one of more than 50 wellness champions who work in Oakland Unified School District

But at Manzanita SEED Elementary, a dual immersion school in Oakland, Calif., school authorities learned to refrain from the urge to confiscate.

“It was not an ideal approach,” explains Zoe Mathews, administrative assistant and one of more than 50 school-based wellness champions embedded in the Oakland Unified School District.

Mathews helped spearhead a different strategy, one that posits parents as partners and acknowledges that food is a highly sensitive topic for most of us.

“Some people don’t have enough food; others use it as comfort,” explains Mathews. “If a grandmother has spent her last twenty dollars on a sheet cake, that’s what she can provide. It’s important for the family, and the school, to honor her gift.”

To support families while building a collective commitment to healthy eating, Manzanita has pursued a comprehensive approach, rooted in consistency. To begin, a commitment to a junk food-free campus was integrated into the School Wellness Policy, in English and Spanish. The policy is showcased on back-to-school night, and parents are asked to sign a copy.

When junk food surfaces on campus, staff remind students and parents of the policy and ask them to consider healthy treats, like fruit, instead. Mathews is the one who picks up the phone to initiate what she calls “a courageous conversation” with parents.

The responses have surprised her.

“It’s almost always, ‘I want to be healthier…how can I get involved?”   They are excited about being part of the solution.”

In addition to the enforcement of the Wellness Policy, a number of activities are helping to shift Manzanita’s culture toward healthy foods:

  • Once a week, students learn about different types of vegetables and fruits at the district’s School Produce Market.
  • In after-school cooking and nutrition classes, students prepare meals with healthy, interesting ingredients.
  • Parents fulfill volunteer hours at the school farmer’s market or by serving healthy snacks during school breaks.

Advice for Other Schools

Mathews underscores that consistency is key.

All parts of the school, from classrooms to community events, must align with the Wellness Policy and give families an opportunity to learn about and enjoy healthy foods.

Schools should ensure that the Wellness Policy is clearly defined and easy to read, so that parents, teachers and students can understand and refer to the policy.

Finally, she says that schools will be most successful by doing what they do best: educating students about the impacts of unhealthy foods on brains and bodies so that students get on board with healthy eating and eventually embrace a policy that promotes their health.

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In Northern California, Kaiser Permanente began providing substantial funding to Oakland Unified School District in 2010 to promote physical activity and nutrition, implement school wellness policies, establish school-based health centers, and develop programs to meet the needs of students historically underserved by the educational system. A new $10 million grant was awarded in 2013 to continue and expand this work.

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