December 17, 2004

Trading Fats for Greens: LEAF Program Offers Healthier Alternatives at Schools

By Tracy Nelson

Who would have thought that middle school students would ever trade snacks and sweets for solid meals and salad bars? The LEAF program made this possible for the students at Memorial and Roosevelt middle schools in San Diego.

The LEAF (Linking Education, Activity and Food) program was a $500,000 grant funded by the California Senate Bill 19, through the California Department of Nutrition. It developed a pilot program at the two schools in an attempt to test the financial effects on the food service department if they changed the menu. LEAF also used the funding to create different activities that catered to the different schools interests.

Cindy Johnson, the school nurse at Memorial and coordinator of the LEAF grant, was very interested in the idea of exchanging the foods provided on campus with healthier alternatives.

“We wanted to see if the children would buy the [healthier] food and if it would be financially profitable,” she said.

Brenda Reynosa, district dietician, was in charge of looking at the foods sold at the school (both a la carte and entrees) and comparing them to the nutritional information and requirements according to the Senate Bill 19.

According to the guidelines, “any snacks sold outside the federal meal program must have no more than 35 percent of its calories from fat, no more than 10 percent of its calories from saturated fat, be no more than 35 percent sugar by weight and the only beverages that may be sold to students are milk, water or juice that is at least 50 percent fruit juice with no added sweeteners.”

One of the drastic changes to the lunch line was the opening of a salad bar.

“It’s exceptional the way the kids reacted to [the program],” said Brenda Burt, resource teacher for health education through the district. “They noticed the selection right away.”

“We provided them with a healthy alternative so [the schools] could still make money,” said Johnson. Unfortunately, both schools’ food service departments lost money during the two-year grant.

“Students bought [the food] in the beginning, but I think they just got bored with it,” said Johnson.

Reynosa thought the program struggled due to the tight nutritional guidelines.

“Too many snacks meet the requirements and not enough entrees,” she said. “Because the entrees became more limited, students were more likely to choose snacks.”

Funds from the grant were also used to implement different activities at Memorial, which included a paid release time for teachers and school employees.

At Roosevelt, most of the activities funds went into improving their physical education programs. The money was able to supplement that area by providing instructional videos and weight-lifting equipment. They also started offering cycling, martial art and dance classes.

Memorial started a weight-lifting club. In addition to that, they proposed Folkloric dancing, a popular Latino dance. Memorial wanted students to have the chance to exercise in ways that are culturally sensitive, according to Johnson.

Though the schools lost money, Johnson and Reynosa are satisfied with the results of the program.

“The goal was to explore different techniques to make the school a healthier environment,” said Johnson. “The district did lose money, but it brought attention to what kids eat at school everyday and that there are alternatives to what students can be fed.”

Reynosa agreed that it was a good learning experience. “I thought it was a great program,” she said. “We learned a lot from it.”

“Over time, students will get used to eating a healthier product and paying for it,” said Johnson. “If we want children to be healthier, we need to promote it at school sites.”

Tracy Nelson is an intern with the UCSD San Diego EXPORT Center and a journalism student at Point Loma Nazarene University. The San Diego EXPORT Center is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.

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