Nutrition Matters: How Miami-Dade Schools Are Leading the Way in Food and Nutrition Literacy

Currently, one in three kids are obese or overweight. If kiddos are obese and overweight at age 10-17 years old, they have an 80% chance of being an overweight or obese adult. Sadly, if current trends continue, by 2030, 86.3 % of adults will be overweight or obese.
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Currently, one in three kids are obese or overweight. If kiddos are obese and overweight at age 10-17 years old, they have an 80% chance of being an overweight or obese adult. Sadly, if current trends continue, by 2030, 86.3 % of adults will be overweight or obese.

In addition to the health risks that come with being overweight and obese, the Centers for Disease Control reports(1) that healthy students are better learners: students who participate in the USDA School Breakfast Program have increased grades and test scores, reduced absenteeism, and improved memory. It has also been found that not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and dairy is associated with lower grades. A recent study from Yale(2) has shown that having more "health assets" (including: healthy weight, fitness level, fruit and vegetable intake, screen time, frequency of family meal, safety, sleep and more) is linked to improved performance on standardized tests in elementary school children. Kids spend such a significant amount of time at school and are influenced by their environment, so regardless of what happens at home, school culture matters. If schools have a culture of wellness with opportunities for students to learn healthy behaviors, if the teachers are modeling healthy habits, they are giving their students a leg up and a chance to take control of their own health and their future. There is no magic nutrition wand, fostering a school wide culture of health in a school takes work, time and requires the school's administrative team and teachers buy-in. To build healthier communities, we need multiple nonprofits, administrative support at the District level, as well as support from local foundations and the Department of Health, to ensure change happens.

Nationwide, school districts have been partnering with Common Threads to use their joint power to raise awareness of the importance of nutrition education in our schools, while developing cooking as an important life skill. By working together, schools nonprofits and other organizations can make a difference. As an organization, we have learned that every city, school district, and school is different. Our success in one city helps us navigate and deepen our partnerships with other urban school districts.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), under the leadership of Alberto Carvalho, are leading the pack in the race to educating the whole student population and have gone full throttle into implementation mode with Common Threads' nutrition and cooking education.

M-DCPS is the fourth largest school district in the country. Since 2009, Common Threads has been providing cooking and nutrition programs in partnership with M-DCPS and now has programming in 97 of its schools. Throughout the 2014 - 2015 school year, the organization will reach over 14,500 children, serving more than 131,000 healthy meals and snacks and training 270 Miami classroom teachers.

M-DCPS has always been progressive in their approach to health and wellness. In 2008, the Department of Food and Nutrition, in partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, set out to create a districtwide Wellness Policy. This policy was ahead of its time in committing to remove soda from vending machines and creating a meal pattern for lunchtime similar to the current federally required meal plan five years before the requirements existed. It is a living, breathing, ever-evolving policy that is updated annually by school board representatives and other community partners.

During our Cooking For Life Festival, we held a panel discussion with the administration, to find out how other school districts across the country can use learnings from M-DCPS'success and partnership with our organization as an example to help scale similar programs nationwide.

Dr. Barbara Johnson, Dr. Jayne Greenberg, Principal Yolanda Ellis, Dr. Linda Amica-Roberts, Linda Novick O'Keefe, Dr. Alberto Carvalho, Penny Parham

Superintendent role in today's school systems has evolved

Alberto M. Carvalho - Superintendent of M-DCPS

Carvalho, who was just named National Superintendent of the Year in 2014, believes that superintendents are in a unique position to make a significant and positive impact on students, their families and the community. According to him, a superintendent's role is no longer to facilitate just reading, writing and arithmetic, but includes teaching responsible and respectful living to each student.

A superintendent is a liaison between premier organizations and good ideas that can bridge the gap between the private and public sector. Bridging those gaps can facilitate meaningful and critical connections with potential funders and supporters that are necessary for nonprofits; as well as bring awareness into a community to improve the quality of life.

Carvalho believes that successful leadership is about the whole team and that is what has enabled him to bring thought leaders and key individuals together to implement programs that will bring about real change. He leads from example and surrounds himself with capable, talented and motivated individuals. Carvalho describes his team as "great warriors and leaders;" it is this visionary leadership that has led him to accomplish great things.

Schools are responsible for keeping students healthy in order to support learning
Penny Parham - Administrative Director, Department of Food and Nutrition, M-DCPS

According to Mrs. Penny Parham, kids go to school to learn, and it is the school's responsibility to make sure these students are healthy. Part of her job is to make sure programs, like Common Threads, are supported not just by the administration, but the entire school.

She attributes much of her success to the connections she makes each day between students, faculty and staff. This way, everyone can see positive results as they happen.

Years ago, M-DCPS eliminated soda from their schools. It is initiatives like this that are necessary to build healthier schools. Common Threads is currently working with the Food and Nutrition Department of M-DCPS to roll out a set of after-school nutrition lessons that will utilize food being supplied to the district through the Federally Reimbursable Snack Program. The lessons will be based on Common Threads' proven in-school nutrition program and include a "classroom cooking" portion that gives students a hands-on opportunity to put together a healthy snack using food from the Federally Reimbursable Snack Program.

Mrs. Parham told us about her recent visit to Charles D. Wyche Elementary School. She witnessed students and teachers in the kitchen with their knives and cutting boards. As the students displayed their culinary skills inside, a teacher took her outside to show her the fresh vegetables they had grown in the garden. She explained, "Everyone was excited, everyone was passionate. This is a school where kids are going to succeed, learn, and have the support they need."

The key to gaining school support for a program is easy: classroom and curriculum integration
Dr. Amica Roberts - ETO, Administrative Director; Ms. Yolanda Ellis, ETO Principal, Frederick Douglass Elementary

School faculties have intense workloads and are inundated with new programs and curriculum constantly. In order to have nutrition education programs welcomed and adopted by faculty, the program must be complete and easily integrated.

Dr. Amica Roberts and Ms. Yolanda Ellis both stated that one aspect that makes Common Threads programming so easily integrated in classrooms is the fact that it is tied to core competencies and does not distract from classroom learning requirements. Additionally, teachers have been quick to get behind like programs for the nutrition aspect and health benefits it brings their students. Once programs are implemented and they can see success first-hand, the excitement is contagious.

Parent involvement is critical for success
Ms. Barbara Johnson, Principal, Charles Wyche Elementary School

Ms. Barbara Johnson brings up another critical component of this specific program - parent involvement. When students and parents are learning the same healthy cooking and nutrition skills and information, they are able to make the changes in their own home.

With at least six families participating each semester in nutrition education programs at her school, she has been fortunate enough to witness the success firsthand. A parent came to Ms. Johnson recently with amazing results from bringing what they learned from Common Threads into her home. Since her family had been using the recipes they learned in class at home, she had lost 41 pounds!

Ms. Johnson also further reiterated the importance of seamless integration in the classroom and with pacing guides. Common Threads is currently working with M-DCPS teachers to map our in-school nutrition program to the district's pacing guides. This initiative will provide teachers with ideal times in the school year to integrate nutrition lessons based on which core content objectives are being covered in the classroom at that time.

Healthy students do better and physical education is a key component
Dr. Jayne Greenberg - District Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy, M-DCPS

Dr. Jayne Greenberg incorporates the physical activity side of student wellness into the equation. She stresses the importance of strong leadership and Carvalho's commitment to health and wellness even to say that her fellow staff would "walk into a fire for him." According to Dr. Greenberg, the physical activity piece goes hand in hand with the nutrition and cooking education and is necessary to reach desired goals. She has seen firsthand that "healthy students do better;" socially, academically, physically and mentally.

Dr. Greenberg also points out that due to limited resources, school districts depend on outside funding, foundations and federal grants in order to make wellness goals a reality. That makes the connections and support that Carvalho, as well as other superintendents can facilitate, critical. As Dr. Greenberg explains, "The Return on Investment is there and it is meaningful. These programs create healthy students and those students then go on to become healthy adults and community members."

The M-DCPS and Common Threads partnership is a successful model for school districts across the nation

If we create healthy habits for America's youth and encourage an upcoming generation of cooks, we will reverse the troubling obesity trend happening now. The partnership between M-DCPS and Common Threads should serve as a model for improving wellness in other school districts. We can learn from this proactive team of teachers, administrators and staff who want better for their students and community.

It starts with school superintendents and leaders who are in a position to identify and meet the needs of their student body through effective programs like Common Threads. They can bring key people together to make the programs successful and implement school wide, to truly change the culture to one of wellness and health. It takes a village to empower kids and families to live healthier lives. By working systemically, individuals like these can inspire children, teachers and families to make healthy behavioral changes, increase confidence and make strong educational gains.


(2) Ickovics, JR et al. J School Health 84: 40-48, 2014.

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