Lessons from Healthy School Food Advocate Mendy Heaps

January 05, 2011

Today we're featuring a guest blog from Mendy Heaps, a 7th grade teacher and healthy school food advocate at Elizabeth Middle School in Elizabeth, Colo., a school of about 600 students in a semi-rural area near Denver. As Mendy says, she's “not a nutritionist or a food purist.  I’m simply a teacher who saw the effects [of junk food] in my classroom and also worried about the effect of junk food on their current and future health.”

Here, Mendy shares lessons from her experience making change at her school, not always an easy task.

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1) Food choice influences behavior and brain health.

In my classroom, I had some kids whose parents made sure they had a good breakfast and a healthy snack to eat in class every day, and I had kids who ate snack cakes and drank soda before school. Guess which group was more academically successful?…  A couple of other teachers and I attended a workshop all about the brain and learning.  We learned apples boost brain health, and if you are dehydrated your brain won’t function at its best. We polled our students and very few ever drank water, and only about half of them ate breakfast (yikes!).  

2) Kids really do like nourishing, healthy snacks.

We started selling apples for a quarter (so we wouldn’t make a profit) and encouraged students to drink water during class.   I also started buying other fruits, vegetables, or cheese sticks we could sell for a quarter.  It was a big hit; we could barely keep up with demand.  … When kids coming to buy fruit became disruptive to my classes, I decided to take the snacks to them. I took the cart my overhead projector was on, piled on some fruit and veggies and began what was affectionately called The Fruit Cart (a student came up with the name).  The Fruit Cart was in the hall before school started each day and went from classroom to classroom during non-disruptive periods like study hall. I started hearing from parents who were thrilled their kids were eating more fruit and veggies.  

The next year I had a student whose parents owned a produce distribution company. They generously offered to deliver produce directly to my classroom.  On Wednesdays during lunch, I had kids bagging strawberries, grapes, carrots or cherry tomatoes, or counting quarters that I could take to the bank after school. Sometimes it was a little overwhelming, but it was also fun –- for me and the kids.  Around this time, my husband was diagnosed with life-threatening health problems related to poor nutrition, which motivated me more than ever.

3) Teachers can successfully integrate nutrition with other core subjects, but school-wide change takes time and collaboration.

I was approached by the 7th grade science teachers about teaching an integrated unit on nutrition. At a meeting with the district food services director (the principal was in attendance also), we talked about our nutrition unit and how hard it would be to teach kids to eat better when the school wasn’t exactly providing them with very good choices. She pointed out that she offered the kids fruit every day -– they just didn’t buy it. I tried to point out that most 7th graders will not choose an apple if there is ice cream, muffins or Fruit Roll-ups to buy instead.  (Heck -– most adults would have a hard time choosing the apple!)  

We pushed ahead with the nutrition unit. I used a curriculum called Planet Health developed by the Harvard University School of Public Health. All of my lessons were tied to the Colorado reading and writing standards and complemented the lessons students were taught in science.  Students were interested and engaged.  Even after the unit was completed, students continued to talk about what they had learned.  I heard from parents who said the whole family was trying to eat better because of what kids had learned in science and language arts.  And I was still doing The Fruit Cart…  

4) Rallying for support of healthy foods in schools can be a long, challenging process. But a strong network of committed advocates are changing the face of school food despite the obstacles.

I can’t teach nutrition any more or have the Fruit Cart because of an issue with school administration, but I will always try to get my students to value their health, eat well, and stand up for what they believe in. Right now I’m trying to organize a showing of TWO ANGRY MOMS in Denver. One night I came across Ed Bruske’s blog, The Slow Cook. I read about how he worked in a Washington D.C. school kitchen for a week to see exactly how things were done.  I was fascinated by the story and I wrote to him and told him mine. He wrote back! He ended up writing about me on his blog. Ed has done a lot to help the kids in D.C. and all over the country get better food at school.

I read several blogs every day -– Better School Food, Fed Up With Lunch, Healthy Schools Campaign, Fooducate, The Lunch Tray, etc.  There are many people working hard to educate and get things changed, and I’m happy to be a part of it!