A new school year is underway. For kids, this means getting to know new teachers, playing kickball at recess, and trying to understand fractions. And for about one in six, it means struggling to concentrate in the classroom due to food insecurity.
In some regions of Michigan, food insecurity rates reach 25% or higher. When kids don’t get enough nutritious food, they face challenges like inhibited cognitive development and diet-related health conditions. As we think about how to help ensure kids have enough healthy food, it makes sense to focus on the place where kids spend the majority of their time: schools.
At the Health Fund, we see schools not just as places of learning, but as “health homes,” places that can help meet not only children’s academic needs, but also their mental and physical health needs. A few of our 2019 Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles grants are weaving food access, physical activity, and nutrition into the day-to-day lives of young students, creating healthy habits that can last for life.
Image from Dearborn Public Schools
HELPING DEARBORN SHINE
One Wayne State University program has already laid roots in the schools of Dearborn, and they’re planning on building upon a growing culture of healthy eating and physical activity there. Dearborn SHINES (School Health through Integrated Nutrition & Exercise Strategies) has been a beacon of healthy programming in a community facing numerous health disparities.
According to Wayne State researchers, over 60% of Dearborn youth are overweight or obese, 70% don’t meet recommended fitness guidelines, and over 50% aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. Dearborn SHINES is responding with a multi-tiered approach—a variety of interventions for the diverse population of students.
Recognizing that children’s healthy habits are maintained through their parents and teachers, the SHINES program team will be guiding the guiders. Thousands of parents and caregivers will be able to enroll in six-week healthy eating and physical activity courses, and hundreds of school staff will receive health-based professional development. Combined with direct lessons to students through nutrition, garden, and physical activity programs at six new Dearborn Public Schools, the team hopes to establish lasting habits.
Through seeds in gardens and lessons in classes, Dearborn SHINES is sowing a culture of health for children across Dearborn, and they hope the whole community will reap the benefits.
Image from FoodCorps Michigan
FOODCORPS: BREAKING AN UNHEALTHY CYCLE
American children of color in the United States are at a higher risk to develop diet-related illnesses like diabetes and hypertension in their lifetimes, and those who lack a nutritious diet have been shown to perform worse in school and have negatively impacted cognitive functioning. FoodCorps Michigan seeks to interrupt that cycle. They believe that kids best learn about healthy food with a hands-on approach—or, even better, with taste buds.
FoodCorps is a national program, started in 2010 as a way for AmeriCorps service members to connect kids to nutrition education in schools. In Michigan, FoodCorps will be expanding their already successful outreach, bringing their sensory-focused, veggie-filled programming to more than a dozen additional schools in Detroit and Muskegon. Most students reached will be children of color receiving free or reduced-price lunches.
From interactive classroom lessons to monthly cafeteria taste-testing, FoodCorps will be providing nutrition education to over 3,500 Michigan students this year, with a goal of 6,000 young Michiganders munching their way into healthier habits by 2020. Beyond that, FoodCorps’ organization-wide vision says it all: “We are creating a future in which all our nation’s children—regardless of race, place, or class––know what healthy food is, care where it comes from, and eat it every day.”
Image from Warren Consolidated Schools
FOOD SECURITY FOR ENTIRE DISTRICTS
In one of the most ambitious and exciting projects of this grant round, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) is piloting Best Food Forward, a collaborative effort to bring two entire school districts to full food security.
Through partnerships with local food banks and numerous community organizations, MDE will build healthy food systems in Warren Consolidated School District in Warren and Westwood Heights School District in Flint. The Health Fund’s grant will provide for the first two of years of implementation, tracking, and assessment, but the program will continue through other funding for another eight years after that, maintaining food security for the families for the entire time.
How will they do it? Health Fund Program Officer Jan Delatorre said the key is a holistic strategy.
“They are calling it the ‘whole child approach,’” he explained. “Nutrition education in the classroom will be supplemented by physical, mental, social, and academic support at home and in the community. You only get positive outcomes when you care for the whole person—everything is connected.”
Similar to some place-based work in the state, MDE is relying on community buy-in with the goal of making deep, systemic impact. In addition to the two school districts and local food banks, their partners so far include Food Bank Council of Michigan, Michigan Fitness Foundation, Michigan State University Extension, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, Wayne State University Medical School, Macomb County Intermediate School District, Genesee Intermediate School District, Blessings in a Backpack, and a growing list of pantry networks, faith-based organizations, SNAP-Ed partners, parent organizations, and businesses.
MDE is using these partnerships to complete a few fundamental tasks:
1. Coordinate and strengthen existing programming. From federal assistance to community organizations, these areas already have a lot of food access resources. MDE will start by making sure families are using these programs to their fullest potential.
2. Educate all involved. Strengthening nutrition education is just the start. Families need to be aware of all resources, teachers need to understand the nuances of food access challenges, and school administrations need help deciding on the most effective interventions.
3. Identify new models of food delivery. As a start, MDE is starting a mobile food pantry system to bring food directly to schools. They’ll be looking for more ways to meet the unique, situational needs that current resources may not cover. For example, what happens when school is off for snow days?
4. Measure the outcomes. Leaders of the initiative expect the project to grow and change along the way. With a ten-year timeline, that’s inevitable. A continual learning and evaluation process will help them connect with new partners and adjust their methods as needed.
In total, Best Food Forward estimates that over 15,000 people will benefit in the end. And it’s designed to be scalable and replicable for other school districts across the state, making its potential for impact on Michigan food access levels extremely high.
The dreams of the project echo the dreams of the Health Fund—that children should be able to focus on learning, playing, and socializing at school, not suffering from diet-related illness or worrying if there’s going to be dinner on the table that night. Our Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles grantmaking often targets schools because we believe they have a lot of power to help make those dreams come true.
The Best Food Forward project is still in its infancy, but its potential is great. Through a community-wide effort to unite against hunger, MDE might be able to build healthy food systems that, at least for a couple school districts, make food insecurity a thing of the past, rather than a fact of life.