By Claire Walla
School Board Member Mary Anne Miller has made it a mission to restore health and wellness to the Sag Harbor School District. And on Monday, November 28, school board members approved a second draft of the school’s updated Wellness Policy, over which Miller, a member of the school district’s Wellness Committee, had great influence.
The issue of health and wellness has been a growing one across the nation, as the rate of childhood obesity in America continues to climb, and it’s been a focus for this school district of late. Just this summer, the administrators made Health and Wellness one of its four over-arching goals for the school year, emphasizing, as Miller put it, that “We need to live and breathe wellness.”
The Wellness Policy thus extends the goal of promoting healthy habits outside the cafeteria and standard physical fitness classes.
“It’s not just about isolating nutrition education to health classes [which students are only required to take in seventh and tenth grades], but to bring nutrition education to the whole education program,” Miller explained.
It promotes the use of physical activity in the classroom, and clearly states that recess and physical activity are not to be used to discipline students. According to the policy, “Students may not sit out of physical education class as a response to inappropriate behavior, unless that behavior affects safety,” and “recess shall not be used for punishment or reward.”
The program also promotes physical education programs that students “can pursue throughout their lives,” like yoga, fitness walking and step aerobics.
The new Wellness Policy not only targets students, it lays the groundwork for healthy habits district-wide. As the policy explains, one of its purposes is, “To incorporate into the curriculum, whenever possible, nutrition education and physical education to instill in our students lifelong habits of healthy eating and daily physical activity.”
The impetus to change the district’s policy came just over two years ago when the school board began to take a good hard look at the floundering Pierson cafeteria.
“At the beginning of my term [on the school board], the cafeteria was struggling so much and was going to be shut down,” Miller began. At first, she continued, “I looked at it from a business stand point. But then I became keenly interested in school service programs.”
Miller said she noticed that the Sag Harbor School District was in “a unique position” because it doesn’t contract out food services with a larger corporation. “We have the freedom to be a really good program and to provide higher quality food.”
“There’s much more to wellness than the cafeteria,” Miller said. “We’re trying to broaden the horizons of the policy to make it more meaningful to everyone.”
Miller worked closely with other members of the Wellness Committee — including fellow board member Teresa Samot and Athletic Director Montgomery “Monty” Granger — to craft a clearer document that, as Miller put it, “is easier to digest.” (According to Miller, the former policy was vague and included 19 recommendations toward the end that she said should have been incorporated into the policy itself.) She also worked to make sure the Wellness Policy was updated to conform to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, as well as the school’s own values regarding health and wellness.
For example, she explained, the wellness policy is now stricter when it comes to ingredients. At least half of the cafeteria’s starches must be “whole grain rich,” and the school will be required to provide vegetarian and gluten-free options on a daily menu or as a la carte options. Both two-percent and whole milk will not be provided by the school, and nor will foods or beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans-fats, and high-fructose corn syrup.
“It was, I have to say, a ton of work,” said Miller, who added she took part in numerous webinars about health and wellness in the process of crafting this policy. “But I put a ton of time into it because I feel so strongly about it.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to healthy eating habits, Miller said it often feels as though administrators are swimming against the tide.
“We have laws that make it more difficult to buy lettuce from farmers in Bridgehampton than from farmers in Ohio,” she vented.
She went on to explain that public schools often cave in to less nutritious menu items because they are typically more cost-effective. This is especially the case with schools that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunches. Schools are required to offer “complete” meals at a low cost to qualifying students, for which schools receive government reimbursements.
Miller pointed out that the cost of public school food has been a national issue recently. Congress was faced with a bill in November that would have prevented tomato paste from being classified as a vegetable (thus preventing pizza from also meeting the school-lunch vegetable quota — as it does now). But, a noticeably steamed Miller continued, the bill was rejected.
In Sag Harbor, however, only about seven percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. This ends up being to the advantage of the district, she continued, because it means the majority of students can afford to buy higher-quality food items. So, even though the district might not be making a profit from the full meals it provides, the cafeteria can bring in other food items and sell them individually at a higher price.
“It’s a slightly different business model, and no one’s held that entrepreneurial hat before,” she explained. In this way, the cafeteria can hope to make money, while at the same time providing full meal options and nutritious food.
“We cannot teach our kids that it’s lethal to eat high-fructose corn syrup and then serve it in our cafeteria,” she went on. “What we’re saying is, the cafeteria is part of their education.”