Fort Mill elementary schools’ efforts to serve children better food while teaching them about healthy lifestyles and exercise have been so effective that all seven campuses have earned national recognition.
Each received a HealthierUS Schools bronze award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in December, joining nearly 4,800 schools across the nation that are moving away from serving salty, highly-processed fast food fare for breakfast and lunch.
No other school in York, Chester or Lancaster counties has received the award, which is given to schools that voluntarily exceed federal nutrition requirements, encourage exercise and foster healthy environments.
“It’s a small step toward the bigger picture,” said Roland Cabading, Fort Mill schools’ food service director. “We’re moving in the right direction.”
As America faces an epidemic of childhood obesity and a rise in chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, federal school officials are urging educators to help turn the tide. In addition to stricter rules for the type of food schools serve, the HealthierUS Schools Challenge was started in 2004 to reward schools that go above and beyond.
First lady Michelle Obama incorporated the Challenge into Let’s Move!, her campaign to get kids moving and healthy.
The Fort Mill schools – Fort Mill, Gold Hill, Orchard Park, Pleasant Knoll, Riverview, Springfield and Sugar Creek elementaries – have launched a variety of healthy initiatives.
Each has a food garden, which teachers incorporate into lessons about science and nutrition. A dietician teaches healthy lifestyle choices. School clubs in archery, running and dancing offer exercise.
A Boosterthon Fun Run raises money for schools by asking parents to pledge dollars for each lap their children run.
“As opposed to selling cookies, candy and wrapping paper ... they come in and do fitness lessons,” Pleasant Knoll Principal Travis Howard said. “Everything is seen through the lens of character and fitness.”
It was the district’s culinary makeover, which Cabading enacted, that cemented the awards.
“All the credit in the world has to go to Roland Cabading,” Sugar Creek Principal Scott Frattaroli said.
For the last two years, Cabading has been working to improve school meals, which had long been chock full of sugar, preservatives and empty calories. The changes are due in part to new federal rules requiring schools to double the fruits and vegetables served, increase whole grains, serve only low fat or fat-free milk and limit trans fats.
Cabading has been ahead of neighboring districts in Rock Hill, York, Clover and Chester and Lancaster counties.
He’s traded pizza and corn dogs for baked chicken and meatloaf made from scratch. Fresh fruit replaced canned peaches drowned in syrup. Starchy, white grain pastas became whole grain.
While the national awards are encouraging, Cabading said his push continues.
Since menus changed, the portion of students buying lunch dropped from about 60 percent across the district to 43 percent.
Trays of uneaten collard greens and whole wheat pasta spill out of cafeteria trash cans.
Students have voiced displeasure.
“What you are serving us is adult food,” read a letter signed by a class of third-graders. “We don’t like it. Stuffed shells are stuffed with ricotta cheese. Why?
“I know it’s healthy, but that’s kind of gross.”
Cabading had to increase offerings of pizza and chicken nuggets in the final months of school last year just to break even.
But there’s hope.
Lunchroom workers are seeing improvement.
“It takes a lot of, ‘Would you like to try it?’” said Pleasant Knoll food nutritionist Carol Johnson.
Among children who still buy lunch, more are munching on vegetables and fruits than before. Healthier entrees, such as wraps, are becoming more popular.
“I’m seeing the cucumber slices eaten off the plates,” Frattaroli said. “I’m seeing a dramatic improvement. It is encouraging.”
Kym Hall, whose daughter is in second grade at Pleasant Knoll, has noticed the trend.
“My daughter’s a very picky eater,” Hall said. “And she eats the lunches here.”
Still, “we’re making more misses than hits,” said Cabading, who expects it to take years before kids are accustomed to healthier school meals.
Food failures nixed from the menu include: baked-from-scratch meatloaf, corn salad and sweet potato salad with red peppers and onions.
After switching to whole wheat pasta for mac and cheese, schools had to renege.
Confetti soup, named for its colorful array of veggies, fell flat.
“I got a lot of comments on that,” Cabading said. “None that I want to share.”
The school board has so far been supportive and willing to bolster the food service department’s $5 million budget with reserves if needed.
“We feel it’s worthwhile because we’ve got to educate the next generation,” Superintendent Chuck Epps said. “These are growing pains.”
Emboldened by the HealthierUS Schools Challenge – which earned each school $500 – Cabading and Epps said they will focus on middle and high schools and winning silver awards for the elementaries.
Those require that at least 60 percent of students each school lunch.
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072