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Ask an Expert: How to make a lower-income school healthier?

Q. My children attend a lower income, extremely diverse school. It offers some good programs, but I want to help the school focus more on healthy eating. How can I do that?

A. In one word – or acronym, rather – INEP. INEP stands for Integrated Nutrition Education Program. INEP is a nutrition program for children in grades K through five in low-income Colorado public schools. The goal of the program is to help kids and their parents learn about the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables and how to eat more of them. INEP, run through the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, also provides teachers with excellent resources for teaching kids about fruits and vegetables.

I am a teacher at a low-income Denver public school, and we participate in INEP. I am a big believer in the importance of  healthy foods and exercise for my students and their families. Ninety-eight percent of our student body qualifies for free and reduced price school lunch. Most of our children eat lunch offered by the school because of this.

Teachers at my school are very excited about INEP because of its excellent curricular offerings. We are given a big binder full of ideas so that our nutrition education can tie into literacy, for example. I just read the book “Stone Soup” to the kids; and we actually made stone soup with a real washed rock in it. The other ingredients were fruity and delicious, but the stone made them take an interest in it.

We focus on the INEP nutrition education every Friday and connect it to various academic lessons. We always send simple, healthy recipes home with kids – mostly in Spanish. The families love them. You can find more recipes by looking at the parent section of INEP’s website, which is also available in Spanish. We have the kids do all the food preparation. We once made peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and they were a big hit. Every lesson covers a state standard. And the kids definitely know they should eat two fruits and two veggies every day.

I would also urge you to try to make sure your child’s school has a salad bar. We have one here and the kids really like it. You can find ways to tap into grant money for this by clicking on Salad Bars 2 Schools, an initiative supported by First Lady Michelle Obama.

I also keep a bucket of fruit in my classroom – donated by various groups. At first, we were giving the fruit out during the school day – but we were finding lots of half-eaten fruit in lockers. The fruit flies took over! So, we now give out the fruit at the end of the day. We give the kids baggies to package up fruit they don’t finish. They love the pears and green apples, and the oranges, too.

I personally care a lot about exercise, too, so I do movement activities in my classroom. If students don’t have outdoor recess, for instance, I pop a Zumba DVD in the machine and we do Zumba together. Or, in a pinch, I have them do jumping jacks. Kids want to move! I sometimes play Latino music and we make up dances together right after lunch.

I do see our children getting healthier. They want the fruit. They talk about eating healthy.

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.