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DPS school health trailblazer softens stance, but is no less passionate

Rainey Wikstrom’s role as a healthy schools advocate and consultant started when her first grade son came home from school in 2002 with a bag of candy the size of his head from a classroom party.

Thanks in large part to Wikstrom’s early outrage and a desire to limit junk food at school, University Park Elementary School in Denver no longer gives children sweet treats at classroom birthday parties or rewards them with food. In fact, parents are asked not to bring food for birthdays at all. Instead, they’re invited to bring pencils, stickers or other small items to be handed out. Snacks in class consist only of fruits and vegetables. Everyone is made aware of the school’s health and wellness guidelines (don’t use the word “policy,” she says, it scares people).

The school’s transformation to being named “the Healthiest School in Denver” by the Denver Post in 2007 did not happen overnight nor without some bumps and bruises.

The healthy-agenda-promoting-moms were labeled “cupcake Nazis.” Some parents said these parents had no business telling them what food to feed their children. (Note the recent actions of Sarah Palin, who brought dozens of cookies to children at a Christian school fundraiser as a way to protest the Pennsylvania Board of Education’s discussion about new guidelines limiting the number of sweets allowed in classrooms).

Wikstrom, keynote speaker at the Colorado Action for Healthy Kids Fall School Wellness Roundtable Wednesday, said she learned a lot from the early conflict. For instance, she realized it’s key to work with all members of the school community – even those who first disagree with the changes.

She has softened her stance over the years. She even openly admits a weakness for potato chips. But a transformation of the way she and her family ate at home had profound effects and she wanted to see the same benefits at school. Her son had numerous food allergies, eczema that affected his ability to sleep or concentrate. Her husband also had some health conditions in his genes. By making minor changes – just eliminating foods with complicated and hard-to-pronounce ingredients – made a huge difference.

So, while it may seem impossible to get to the place where University Park Elementary finds itself, she says it isn’t…if you follow a few steps:

  • Define your vision then find people in the community who embrace it and who bring different but complementary skills to the table;
  • Embrace compassion (“there are many ways of seeing the same problem,” she says);
  • Start small and target one area to improve, such as birthday snacks;
  • Begin with the wellness policy (every Colorado district and school should have one);
  • Form a team that – at a minimum – includes the principal, the school nurse, teachers and, ideally, students;
  • Survey the community to find out their views, concerns, suggestions;
  • Stop talking, start acting It’s easy to spend too much time debating and talking;
  • Celebrate and evaluate your successes It’s key to let people know about the good things happening as a result;
  • Sustain the culture changes Make sure you enlist parents of children in younger grades and people who commit to staying the course;
  • Communicate your successes early and often.

For more tips and suggestions on how to make changes at your school, check out the Parents are the Power Toolkit available in English and Spanish. And, click this link for more information on healthy celebrations at school.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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