Notes from New Zealand: Lessons in Healthy Change for School Food

May 02, 2014

A few school food lessons apply in the U.S. and across the globe

When I started talking with people about school food in New Zealand, I expected to find differences. The more I learned, though, the more I was struck by how familiar it felt.

Despite major system differences, the educators and health advocates I’ve met in this small town in New Zealand talk about many of the same challenges and successful strategies that I heard about from people making change on the ground in Chicago.

Their insight emphasized a few consistent lessons:

Policy matters, and it makes a difference for learning.

In her role as a health promoter for the regional district health board, Louise West has worked with schools to promote the health-promoting schools approach to health and well-being. She emphasizes the value of strong school policy to drive change and provide the support that teachers, canteen managers and other school staff need in their efforts to ensure students are learning and succeeding academically.

“If the academic results aren’t there, we can’t just blame the teaching because we need good policies to support learning delivered in the classroom,” said Louise. “If we're allowing students to eat foods high in sugar, for example, and then sending them back into the classroom, obviously that will have a huge impact on their behavior and therefore their ability to learn.” She added that “school policies that prohibit sugary foods like Coke, lollies and cakes but encourage healthy foods like fruit, veges and water will make a huge difference to student learning.”

The most effective policies are informed by the people they affect.

While school leaders are responsible for setting policy, the advocates I spoke with emphasized that decision-makers need insights from the field to craft policy that really works. Teacher Odette Wilson works with student leaders at Parawai School to gather feedback from students, parents, staff and community members. Taken together, these perspectives have informed changes such as increased variety of healthy food at the school canteen.

“What’s important to the kid in your classroom, what’s important to parents, what’s important to staff — you need all that input,” she said. “You need everyone’s input to make some really informed decisions.”

Student insight is essential.

Brenda Fowell, the canteen manager at Thames High School, engages students in informal research that boosts the canteen’s success. “If they want something different, they will tell you,” she said. When students request a new dish in the canteen, she asks them how many other students would be interested. If they come back to say that twenty of their friends want to try the dish — and if it meets the school’s nutrition standards — she trials it for a week. Other times, she enlists students to run “huge taste-testings” of foods she’s considering for the canteen.

At Parawai school, student leaders play a key role in ensuring the sustainability of healthy changes. “They’re strong leaders, and they will speak up if something doesn’t make sense to them,” said Louise. “They have a way of holding the school community accountable.”

The community can be part of a school’s healthy changes.

One of the most popular items in the Thames High School canteen is a healthy steak pie. Using guidance from the National Heart Foundation, school staff and a local nutritionist worked with the town’s pie baker to re-formulate a few recipes. Now the school sells three different savory pies that earn the Heart Association’s “Heart Tick” and meet criteria for salt and fat. Building this relationship and developing successful recipes was a win all around, Brenda said.

“Kids are keen on pies, but if you can cut out the pastry and make it healthy, that works for everyone,” said Principal David Sim.

(For Parents United for Healthy Schools fans — this story warmed my heart because it reminded me of Jovita’s work with tamale vendors in Little Village to re-work traditional recipes in a healthy way.)

Healthier food doesn’t always look healthy.

The wraps the Brenda sells on Chicken Tender Tuesday fit my image of what healthy food looks like, with grilled chicken, fresh vegetables and visible whole grains. So does the sushi she features on Wednesdays. The pizza and that healthy pie? You wouldn’t know they’re healthy just by looking. Just as food service providers in Chicago Public Schools went through an extended process to develop a whole grain pizza crust that students would like, school canteen managers here are creating healthy versions of student favorites that don’t particularly look like health food. They’re a hit with students and a healthy business for the canteen.

Healthy food supports education goals.

No matter where you are, a healthy food environment helps schools meet their core goals related to learning and behavior.

“We know for sure the connection between high sugar drinks and kids’ behavior patterns,” David said with regard to the school’s policy on fizzy and sugary drinks. “It’s a no-brainer in terms of not making those available in the school canteen. Why would you?”

Providing appealing, healthy food is really about supporting students and the school community, said Brenda.

“The kids appreciate a decent meal,” she said. “If you give them good brain food, they’re going to be more focused and I’m sure the teachers appreciate it too.”

Read all Notes from New Zealand posts here.