School Food Plays a Key Role in Preventing Childhood Obesity

School districts around the state are taking steps to make sure Colorado’s students are getting the right kind of nutrition for successful learning, a critical focus given September is both National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and the hectic back-to-school season. A 2009 study in the UK found that students who ate a healthy lunch not only decreased their absentee rate, but also improved test scores, underscoring the importance of nutritious food in school cafeterias.

Colorado schools serve 63.9 million lunches and 22.7 million breakfasts, and two recent policy and standards changes aim to help ensure kids are able to access healthy food at school:

  • USDA Smart Snacks in School standards – a national standard that applies to foods sold a la carte, in the school store, and vending machines.
  • Colorado’s reduced-price lunch bill – Signed by Gov. Hickenlooper on June 3, 2014, expands the co-pay elimination for students who qualify for a reduced lunch from K-2 to now include K-5.

Mapleton Public Schools in Denver has long held the belief that children who eat well, learn well. The School District has been able to increase healthy menu options since participating in the LiveWell@School Food Initiative. Several years ago, Mapleton Public Schools removed all deep fryers from its kitchens and one by one has been replacing frozen and processed foods with fresh, made-from-scratch menu items, including salad bars. Currently more than 75 percent of the district’s menu is made from scratch and the students have responded very positively.

chefsThis fall, Mapleton’s Nutrition Services staff is working alongside LiveWell chef consultants to introduce salad bars to district schools one school at a time, including teaching salad bar etiquette, introducing new fruits and vegetables, and discussing serving sizes. At Adventure Elementary, a PreK-6 school, students are already enjoying building their own salads topped with carrots, cucumbers, corn, mandarin oranges and garbanzo beans.

“All children deserve quality, healthy food,” said Mapleton Public Schools Director of Nutrition Services, Joella Carron. “We have welcomed a full-time chef and staff trainer to our department and continue to find fun, healthy and tasty ways to ensure Mapleton’s children are getting the best from their school cafeteria. We continue to receive great feedback and suggestions from our students and families on how we can provide healthy and tasty meals so the mind and the body.”

Fifty-two percent of the district’s students participate in the daily lunch program, up two percent over last year; and 19 percent participate in the daily breakfast program. The district credits this high level of participation to the fact that they provide scratch-made, tasty food options and because free lunch is provided to reduced-price qualified students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. Mapleton is reimbursed for students through 5th grade thanks to the reduced-price Lunch Bill. Mapleton will also be ramping up its Smart Snacks initiative in January.

An important aspect of this shift in school nutrition is the fact that students and parents, along with health-minded organizations like LiveWell Colorado, have advocated for change and helped move legislation that promotes healthier food in schools. In addition to the LiveWell@School Initiative, LiveWell Colorado also funds a community-based collaboration called LiveWell South Adams County (LWSACO) to drive healthy eating and active living (HEAL) work across the region. Coordinated by local non-profit Community Enterprise, LWSACO is a partnership of residents, agency partners, and local leaders that work on a community and regional level to increase access to and build advocacy for HEAL opportunities at the local and state level.

LWSACO supports a school wellness team at York International School in Mapleton, and students and parents from York attended LiveWell Colorado Day at the Capital to advocate for the passage of the reduced-price school lunch bill and other HEAL legislation that was passes this session, including Safe Routes to School. The combination of both school administration level policy change and buy-in and momentum from parents and students are invaluable in creating sustainable HEAL opportunities across Colorado.

Nearly 100 school districts across Colorado have participated in the LiveWell@School Food Initiative and accepted the challenge to change their processes, menus and mindsets to fight childhood obesity by improving the nutrition of student meals. For more information on healthy schools, visit our Healthy Schools section.


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