By Jennifer Kelly, Healthy Chelsea
In an op-ed on December 2, Kenneth Thorpe discussed how schools have a unique opportunity to address the obesity crisis. Healthy Chelsea, a community health coalition, and Chelsea Public Schools could not agree more. Together, we have been working toward this goal for more than five years, and seeing positive results.
Healthy Chelsea was formed in response to an MGH community assessment in 2009, which showed high obesity rates to be a major concern of residents. The coalition partners with Chelsea schools as a way to promote healthy eating and active living to the majority of young people in our city. According to 2010 school BMI statistical data, 48 percent of Chelsea school children in 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th grades were overweight or obese. Furthermore, statistics indicate that Chelsea residents are more likely to develop diabetes and are more likely to die from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes than residents across Massachusetts.
This health inequity between our community and others is unjust. Fast food and corner stores are abundant and convenient–especially for families that are busy with multiple jobs and living under depressed socioeconomic conditions. These factors should not compromise the health and future of our students.
Healthy Chelsea collaborates on programming and initiatives in all of Chelsea’s public schools, from pre-K to high school. A main focus is improving the quality, freshness, and nutrition of the school meals, which most students rely on for at least two meals every day.
We partner closely with Chelsea Food Services to continuously improve upon what is being offered. Some of the major changes have included removing juice on the menu–an unpopular but pediatrician-recommended decision–due to juice’s high sugar content; and introducing home-cooked meals to the high school, such as the BBQ Chicken Dinner and a Fresh Fish Platter, made with local baked redfish.
We also recognize and strongly emphasize the need for more culturally appropriate menu items. Each year we hear students request tacos, enchiladas, baleadas, sambusas, and other meals they eat with their families. These dishes are familiar to our students, and they are healthy when made with whole and fresh ingredients. In the past couple of years, burritos, tacos, and tostadas have been added to the menu, but it is an ongoing effort.
Through Youth Food Movement (YFM), paid Healthy Chelsea interns, we bring student voice into the process. These dedicated organize school food surveys for the student body, act as spokespeople in meetings with Food Service, and have even pitched new menu items that made it into the cafeteria.
Thanks to these efforts, the CPS district administration, and Chelsea Food Service’s diligent work, we have seen huge improvements in the quality and satisfaction of school meals. At Chelsea High School (as of September 2016), lunch participation was up to 72 percent from less than 40 percent five years ago, and the amount of meals offered that fall into a “green zone,” indicating nutritional quality, has risen from seven to 37 percent.
Another cafeteria-based program is the Harvest of the Month tastings. Once a month in each elementary school cafeteria and at the Early Learning Center (ELC) after-school program, students have the opportunity to taste the fruit or vegetable of the month. Even if they don’t like the recipe, students are celebrated for trying something new and receive stickers and trading cards. Hundreds of students have sampled kale, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and more.
Healthy Chelsea also collaborates on school gardening programs in four schools. Over the past two years FoodCorps service members have worked with the ELC, Hooks, Kelly, and Berkowitz to build, expand, and teach science lessons in these garden spaces. Not only does gardening get students outside and engaged with nature, it also allows them to experience the satisfaction of growing their own food. We have witnessed first graders chowing down on raw kale and radishes that they grew in their own garden. Come visit one of the gardens in the spring, if you don’t believe us!
Finally, we promote physical activity in the classroom. While many elementary school teachers were already doing this on their own, we worked with the schools to add a policy making it mandatory to add more activity into the daily routine for grades pre-K to 4. The schools now have access to software that makes it easier to incorporate “movement breaks” into their day and even tie it to their lessons.
Our students in Chelsea deserve access to the same quality of health as every other student in Massachusetts. We will continue working with our schools to make sure that, not only are our young people receiving high quality education, they are also receiving the nourishment and life skills needed to live long and healthy lives.