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Cutler-Orosi is the largest unincorporated community in one of the poorest counties in California.
Located in the largely Latino region called the San Joaquin Valley, more than half of the men and women who live here are migrant farm workers. Poverty limits food and beverage choices to what’s cheap, easy, and not always healthy.
One school district food services director, Brenda Handy, went above and beyond to ensure that, while kids were at school, they were not only eating well, but drinking well, too.
Tackling the ‘Soda Issue’
Ever since Brenda Handy started as food services director for the 95% Latino Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District in California’s San Joaquin Valley more than four years ago, she saw students struggle to maintain healthy weights.
She noticed what she called a “soda issue,” in which students were drinking too many sugary drinks.
Body mass index (BMI) measurements from nurse’s offices confirmed her observations. In fact, according to an analysis of the 2004 FITNESSSGRAM data by the California Department of Education, over 32 percent of California youth are overweight, and close to 74 percent are unfit
She decided she needed to change the school food and drink environment.
Cutler-Orosi is a Tier II school district, meaning all students get free breakfast and lunch.
This gives the schools a big opportunity to influence the nutritional value of food and drink choices students make at school, Handy said.
She sought to find out why students were making poor food and drink choices.
“A lot of it has to do with being in a food desert” where many people don’t have access to healthy food or have limited income that forces them to opt for cheap fast food and sugary drinks, Handy said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) interactive food access map indicates the region has high or relatively high numbers of households (10% or more) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket.
Also, many parents aren’t aware of how too many sugary drinks can negatively impact child health, Handy said. She recalled how one parent even told her how happy and energetic drinking soda makes her child.
Complicating matters, families in this region don’t trust water quality, and they view sugary drinks as a “safer options for kids”, Handy said.
The state of California already has strong nutritional guidelines for what can and cannot be sold at school or served during lunch, and with the new USDA school food standards expected to roll out in June 2014, Handy saw the tide turning in favor of a healthier school day.
However, just because a policy is in place, doesn’t mean it’s having a positive effect on kids’ health.
For example, California law mandates water fountains in school cafeterias, but Cutler-Orosi students hardly ever used them, said Susan Elizabeth, a long-time childhood obesity advocate who was hired to help with coordinated school health at Cutler-Orosi.
“The water fountains have a really bad name in a lot schools because they are actually not clean,” Elizabeth said.
Handy was convinced the district’s beverage standards and practices needed an overhaul.
She researched the USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge (HUSSC), a national program that recognizes schools for going above and beyond nutrition and physical activity standards.
She believed that using the HUSSC could be a launching pad for change.
Handy informed district administrators and the superintendent of her plans and got their support, then signed up Cutler-Orosi for the HUSSC in 2012.
The HUSSC made it easier to get buy-in from administrators and other key players to plan for changes such as removing sugary drinks from vending machines and adding healthier school snacks.
“By going through the Challenge, it became more of a collaborative effort” among various school officials, leaders, and administrators, Handy said.
But making healthy changes wouldn’t be easy. Removing sugary drinks would mean losing revenue from their sales.
But, through implementing other changes and seeking additional grants, Handy said the district planned to counteract potential revenue losses.
Water quality would also remain an issue.
Schools promoting water could run into trouble if the water they are promoting isn’t safe for kids to drink, Elizabeth said.
Water on Every Desk
Through the HUSSC, Handy started testing healthy changes at the school.
• Removing sugary drinks—carbonated beverages, sports drinks, etc.—from vending machines.
• Making low-fat milk the only milk for sale at elementary and middle schools.
• Making water the only beverage for sale at high schools.
• Receiving a USDA grant to offer fresh fruits and vegetables as midday snacks.
• Receiving a Tulare Office of Education grant to start Nutrition Advisory Council (NAC) groups— groups of fifth-graders who would be taught how to go into younger students’ classrooms and teach about healthy eating. “You might have three or four fifth-grade students go into a kindergarten class and demo with the kindergartners a wonderful salad with baby spinach, nuts, oranges…and actually have them taste it,” Handy explained. “Many of these students haven’t tasted things like this.”
To counteract $80,000 in lost profits from Gatorade sales, Handy began implementing a supper program through the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), where kids who stay for after school activities get a meal at 3:30 p.m. The program provided the school reimbursements and after-school meals to students who may not get dinner at home.
Handy also moved staff around and temporarily refrained from hiring new staff as another means of recovering from the loss of funds.
“You have to look at it as a business model,” Handy said. “What can I do to replace that funding that I’m going to lose?”
Still, the district had no formal policy to institutionalize many of the healthy changes.
Dr. Carolyn Kehrli, the superintendent of Cutler-Orosi, believed a strong student handbook would solidify healthy changes for the district.
“That’s how we can do policy,” Handy said.
Also, Handy and Elizabeth brought together a coalition of parents, teachers, PE coaches, administrators, and others to update the district’s wellness policy. Handy said they discussed questions like: What would a healthier school look like in your view? How can we promote kids health?
“They really have gone the extra mile,” she said of the coalition, whose revised policy has yet to be presented for approval.
They also got students involved through a “Rethink Your Drink” campaign, part of which included students reading facts about sugary drinks over the loud speaker during announcements for 30 days.
“It’s about getting students involved, getting them to get the word out,” said Handy.
The district made several permanent policy changes for the 2013-14 school year.
They updated all student handbooks to list chips, candy, gum, and soda in the “What NOT to Bring to School” section, essentially creating a “no soda” policy. This means that students who eat lunch off campus cannot bring a soda back to campus. Handy believes this new policy is a great step forward.
“We really want to push this idea of, ‘A bottle of water on every desk,’” she said of their mantra, which came from a parent.
The district added three new hydration stations in December 2013 to further bolster the goal.
The stations, made possible by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Community Transformation Grant, provide filtered and chilled water fountains that make it easy for students and staff to fill up water bottles. The schools went ahead and paid for the installations and concerns about water quality were alleviated by having the water tested and proven safe to drink.
“We’ve had to do our due diligence to ensure that the water is in fact drinkable,” Elizabeth said.
Student Hydration on the Rise
Within a week, Elizabeth said the schools saw a huge uptake in the number of students drinking from the hydration stations.
“And it’s not even hot here yet,” she said.
Handy and Elizabeth hope that the “no soda” rule in the student handbook will help shift the beverage culture in the community.
Before Handy insisted on making nutritional changes, the school district had spent most of its energy on raising test scores, explains Elizabeth. Once they did that, she said, they looked around and saw the decaying state of students’ health and started getting more involved.
“They’ve made staggering progress in the past couple years,” said Elizabeth.
She hopes that the enthusiasm will continue, especially when the new wellness policy is approved. Wellness policies, Handy explained, are ways a district can make impactful changes without having to go through state or federal barriers. They also allow each unique district to cater to their specific needs.
Of course, some struggles remain. Handy said educating teachers and parents, and getting their support, is an ongoing effort. The new wellness policy, now called the coordinated school health wellness policy, will be taken up for consideration in March 2014.
Elizabeth believes that passionate people are key to making healthy changes happen in communities.
“You’ve got to have passionate people who are willing to take the lead,” she said. “Brenda has done that in her school district.”
With more water available and no sodas allowed, both women hope students will pick up healthy drinking habits at school that will improve their learning as well as their overall well-being.
“Well-kids make better students,” said Elizabeth.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.