First grader Lillian helps herself to fresh fruit in the RMCS cafeteria.

Promoting Health and Preserving Tradition at RMCS

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Thursday October 13, 2016

Nothing could sound more innocent than a bake sale to raise money for a school. But as childhood obesity becomes a national concern, many schools are questioning whether they want to be part of the problem or the solution. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one-third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

Schools have historically been culprits of poor nutrition by serving low quality food in cafeterias, celebrating birthdays with cupcakes, and leaning heavily on food-related fundraisers, like chocolate and cookie dough sales. Even popular grocery-store label redemption programs like Box Tops can be subversive, as the majority of eligible food products are of poor nutritional quality.

Rick Marcotte Central School (RMCS), along with other schools in South Burlington, has been working to change many of those traditions to make school a place that not only teaches students about making healthy choices, but also models and supports those choices. Classroom birthdays are celebrated with games or activities instead of treats. A robust farm-to-school program teaches children about food systems and quality nutrition. Mindfulness, character education, and other programs are incorporated into the curriculum to develop students’ social and emotional skills.

This year, the district has updated its wellness policy and procedures to further comply with federal “Smart Snack” guidelines, which were established by the USDA in 2014. The guidelines stipulate that foods served at school must meet certain nutritional criteria including limits on sodium, fat, calorie, and sugar content. According to a letter from South Burlington’s Superintendent David Young, schools must ensure that:

• All snacks shared at school or school functions be in alignment with the “Smart Snack” nutritional guidelines
• Fundraisers also follow Smart Snack guidelines
• Families are free to make their own choices about what to send to school for their own child to eat

The new policies have teachers, parents, and students at RMCS in conversations about the foods associated with some of their time-honored traditions. One example is a fifth-grade fundraiser called the “Cake Wheel” where students decorate dozens of cakes with gobs of frosting and candy, and raffle them off to other students in a roulette-style game at the Spring Fair.

“They’re ruining our whole fifth grade year!” says Trent Biaza dramatically.

“The ban on sweets seems a bit extreme,” comments his mother Suzanne. “No one eats those cakes anyway! This policy took everything away.” She cites another example, surprise candies at the bottom of bags of popcorn on Popcorn Friday, another practice that has been discontinued.

Biaza is by no means advocating for more junk food. “I like the idea of controlling how much sweets they get at school. And by all means, when the sign-up sheet for a school function goes out, please include fruit and veggie platters. The kids will eat it. We’re always the ones bringing fresh kiwi, strawberries, the kids go crazy over it. But everything in moderation.”

Other parents and guardians express delight over the school’s efforts, especially if they are trying to make healthy changes at home or have children with food-related allergies and health issues.

Fifth-grade teacher Annick Cooper is optimistic the school can adapt. “Yes, it’s a change for our school. But I think that with flexible thinking and enough opportunity to talk with our students, we’ll embrace the challenge and find alternatives which meet the guidelines and still maintain the fifth grade rites of passage.”

Susie Merrick is South Burlington’s Healthy Schools Coordinator and part of the committee responsible for advancing wellness initiatives. She says she understands that change is hard.

“I’ve been grateful for the courage of our students, staff, and families in asking the hard questions with respect and thoughtfulness,” she says. “Just in the last week I saw a fruit buffet laid out by an educator for her class, one of our principals shared that families had dropped off bananas that look like dolphins, and one of the PTO’s was serving 100 percent real fruit leather at movie night.”

She points to many resources on the school district’s “Healthy Schools” webpage for ideas on smart snacks and non-food related fundraisers, like fun runs, car washes, and recycling programs for cell phones and ink cartridges.

Cooper sees the positive side of the new regulations. “This is an opportunity for us as a community to model healthy habits,” she says. “Promoting healthier food choices at school functions and fundraisers is a benefit to students and their families, it takes a village to guide kids to making healthy choices!”

Merrick will be visiting district PTO meetings to answer questions about the policies and procedures, as well as the goals behind them. More information can also be found on the school district home page under “Healthy Schools – Wellness.”

Meanwhile, RMCS fifth graders have a field trip they’ll need to raise money for…walk-a-thon anyone?

SOURCE: Michelle Rosowsky, RMCS PTO

The next RMCS PTO meeting is Thursday, November 8, 7:30-8:30am in the library.