New Canaan Public School teachers and room moms have been rethinking the menus for end-of-year parties, adding carrot sticks and fruit slices to the traditional spreads of cupcakes and brownies. Earlier this month the Board of Education approved a new wellness policy for the district aimed at promoting sound nutrition and a physically active lifestyle at every possible turn, including class celebrations.
The new policy aims to close the loop between the lunch room, the classroom, the gym, and the family fridge.
Already New Canaan's cafeterias have increasingly gone fresh, organic and local, and every ninth grader is now made to create a plan to improve their wellness based on self-analysis of their diet and fitness. The policy codifies all that, and takes it up a notch, involving not just food services and the health education department, but all staff as well as parents and students in promoting and refining those efforts going forward.
"There's a call in this to everyone who works in the system to be role models," said Deputy Superintendent Mary Kolek, who co-chaired the Wellness Committee that drafted the policy. Staff who have historically left a bowl of candy out on their desks for the taking, she said, will be asked to refrain from doing that from here on out.
Instead of just sending mandated state fitness tests results up to Hartford, the district will also send those report cards home as one way to help educate parents about their children's wellness. Parents will be encouraged through parent-education programs such as healthy eating seminars to send their kids to school with nutritionally sound snacks and lunches.
"The assessment for math occurs in math class, but when you're a health teacher or a physical education teacher, the implementation for those lessons really happens at home," Kolek said.
The new policy is a long time coming. In 2004, a new federal law was passed requiring that districts participating in the National School Lunch Program create a wellness policy by June 2006. Even though New Canaan doesn't participate in that program, that provided inspiration.
"We wanted to have a policy, but we could take our time," Kolek said.
Then, about five years ago, parent Cobie Graber moved to town, and, though her oldest son was just two at the time, she started lobbying the Board of Education for a wellness policy.
"I saw that they used to have Trix yogurt and hot dogs on pizza," Graber said (over the last few years, processed foods have been nixed from New Canaan public school menus). "My idea... was to try and start within the system to start moving in the right direction—collaborate with students, improve school food, and possibly in the future creating edible school yards."
In 2009, she officially organized health-minded locals under the banner "Nourish New Canaan", which now boasts about 270 subscribers to its e-mail list.
"I kept getting e-mails about lunch time," said Board of Education member Jenny McMahon.
When Michelle Obama became first lady and put healthy food and living on the national stage, that gave the district a final push. Graber and McMahon were drafted to a new Wellness Committee, along with Kolek, district Operations Director Michael Lagas, Athletic Director and Wellness Coordinator Jay Egan, Food Services Director Bruce Gluck, physical education teacher Joshua MacDonald, science teacher Melinda Meyer, health teacher Kim Palmer, East School Principal Bunny Potts, Grade 8 Administrator Michael Woods, and parent Wendy Pratt.
When the committee was established, it was the first time representatives from those disparate corners of the school community were all working together on health and fitness.
"We found that there were so many things going on that so many people in the committee were not aware of," said Jay Egan.
Egan is responsible for the district's health curriculum, which (since wellness is after all about habits) he says is more effective when kids hear the same message from all sides.
"With anything that effects behavior, you have to close the circle with all the people who have influence," he said.
Egan is optimistic that the new wellness policy and the committee, which is living on to promote and monitor the implementation of the policy, will help accomplish just that. "In an ongoing way it will keep the concept of wellness in the front burner with respect to the entire community," he said.
"We're anxious to find ways for parents to engage at home around areas of health and fitness," he said. He's got ideas for having families chart what they eat for two days or take walks together on the weekend as part of health class homework.
Bruce Gluck is excited to report that the message from the school cafeterias is already hitting home.
"We've got people asking why we don't package things so we can take stuff home."
Though he won't be providing to-go boxes for the popular falafels made with amaranth and rice flour or the quinoa and flax-seed crust pizza topped with school-produced sauce and mozzarella, he will be posting the ingredients and nutrition information on the Food Service website during the next school year.
"I have a lot more to offer than a lunch tray," Gluck said. "We actually had the family and consumer science class come down here. We're going to continue that next year. We want the kids to... learn about the production, and how raw material is made into what they eat."