Bleacher Talk: Taking Action for Active and Healthy Students

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Action for Healthy Kids, in conjunction with Every Kid Healthy Week taking place in schools nationwide, April 19-25, 2015. View the blog post on The Huffington Post.

Last week I was having a pretty typical conversation at Little League practice. If you’ve sat on a bleacher, you’ve probably had this conversation. It started with, “Who is your son’s teacher?” Like every other time, this conversation included many reasons why I’d love that teacher for my kids someday. But this time I knew the teacher we were talking about — she’s an active board member on our PTA. Each month, she lets us use her classroom for our PTA meetings.

At the meetings, I’ve always smiled to see the exercise balls at students’ desks in lieu of chairs. I never knew the story behind the stability balls — I just know the research: it works! Stability balls help keep attention-challenged kids focused on learning, while strengthening core muscles and improving posture. I figured this teacher must be a health advocate or a believer in the theories of kinesthetic learning.

What I didn’t know is that this teacher partnered with parents to transform her classroom in support of one child. The mom told me when her son joined the class, the teacher didn’t want him to feel different – or alone – when using the stability ball to help him focus on learning. So she used the funds donated by parents at the beginning of the year to purchase enough balls for all of the students. The mom said it’s made a difference — not just for her son — but for the many students who have enjoyed second grade in that classroom ever since.

Stories like this are being told on bleachers nationwide. And that’s what we celebrate during Every Kid Healthy Week (April 19 – 25). Throughout the week, we shine a spotlight on the many ways parents and community members are lending their time, sharing their talents, opening their wallets, and leveraging their personal and professional networks to support one objective — to help schools create active learning environments and increase nutritious options for students.

Here are some great examples of how local PTAs are taking action:

  • At Lafayette Elementary School in Eureka, California, students are buzzing about a bicycle-powered blender that the PTA uses as a classroom incentive for school fundraisers. Students enjoy wheeling their way to delicious, healthy smoothies made of yogurt, orange juice, bananas and frozen fruit.
  • At Charlotte Hill Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada, students drink more water during the day thanks to new water bottles. They’re also moving more throughout the day using new equipment such as balls, hula hoops and jump ropes.
  • At Pittsburgh Banksville K-5, Pennsylvania, the PTA educated more than 400 members of its school community at a Healthy Kids Expo. Attendees learned about the concept of energy balance by sampling healthy foods at Energy In stations and then burning energy at Energy Out stations where numerous community organizations featured their exercise opportunities, including hockey, martial arts, yoga and dance.
  • At Rainbow Elementary School in Madison, Alabama, families logged more than 2,300 miles and 79,000 minutes of exercise in Fire Up Your Feet’s “Walk Around the World Challenge.” All registrants received a pedometer to track their progress.
  • At Ridgecrest Elementary School in Lawton, Oklahoma, students are “charmed” into making healthier choices. They earn necklace and bracelet charms for drinking water every day. Students also earn charms for being part of the classroom that eats the most fruits and vegetables.
  • At Irving Park Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina, more than 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. A major concern for the school’s PTA was access to nutritious foods, so they built two school gardens (K-2 and 3-5). Each of the 34 classrooms in the school had a dedicated garden bed, and teachers used common core-aligned lessons to engage students in the planting, tending and harvesting of vegetables. They educated families about the easy ways to grow healthy vegetables and even have a waiting list of families who want to help tend the gardens.

Whether Every Kid Healthy Week or any time of year, now is the perfect time to start making your child’s school a healthier, more active place to learn. How do you begin? Think about your child’s needs first. Talk with the teacher about the ways you can contribute to a more active classroom environment or healthier choices for celebrations. Volunteer for PTA, the school advisory committee, or the school wellness council and develop ways to educate families about the link between health and learning. Walk through the school — cafeteria, classrooms, gymnasium, playground, surrounding neighborhood — with an eye on what you could do to make it better for your child. When you create a healthier learning environment for one child, every child benefits.

Mary Pat King, MS is the Director of Programs & Partnerships, National PTA. She serves as the Legislative & Advocacy Chair at Cypress Woods Elementary School PTA in Palm Harbor, FL. She is the mom of Mason (first grade) and Jenna Bea (Pre-K).

Five Tips for Healthy Food without the Fight

March is National Nutrition Month®, launched by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and a perfect time to refresh (and brighten up!) your family’s go-to meals.

MyPlate, which is the newest version of the “food pyramid,” helps us visualize what a balanced meal should be: full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low fat dairy. But many adults and children don’t eat this way – we eat too many refined grains, and not enough colorful fruits and veggies.

Photo credit: Chartwells – Kids cooking and measuring ingredients, Clintondale, MI

Photo credit: Chartwells – Kids cooking and measuring ingredients, Clintondale, MI

It can be tough introducing new foods to our families, especially kids, from taking the time to find and prepare new recipes to making sure everyone eats them. Meals can sometimes feel like a fight between serving the meals we know our kids need, and just preparing the food our kids want. Here are some tips you might find useful for navigating mealtime:

  1. Photo credit: Chartwells – Garden Wilton, CT

    Photo credit: Chartwells – Garden Wilton, CT

    Make It a Team Effort – Involve everyone in the shopping and preparation effort – they’ll be more open to trying new foods this way. Have your kids pick out new vegetables at the supermarket to try at home, recruit them to wash fresh produce, tear apart lettuce leaves, and measure ingredients.

  2. Naming Fun – In our café’s, we’ve found that giving foods fun and enticing names can increase the number of students who choose and eat that food. If you plan out your family’s meals for the week, post a menu on the fridge and use names like “X-Ray Vision Carrots,” or “Crazy Crunchy Kale.”
  3. Photo credit: Chartwells – Chef Table Student Feedback, Ann Arbor, MI

    Photo credit: Chartwells – Chef Table Student Feedback, Ann Arbor MI

    Try It Tuesday – It may take a few times of “trying” before you or your kids begin to really like a particular food. In our districts, we host chef tables in the café to expose students to new recipes before they’re served. Consider sampling a new vegetable dish each week (make only a few servings) and suggest everyone take a bite. Don’t push too hard – it’s OK if the answer is no. Try vegetables in different forms, and keep trying them – this one requires some real patience!

  4. Grow a Healthy Appetite – There’s nothing better than eating food you’ve grown yourself. Start a small windowsill herb garden, convert a corner of your yard, or buy a plot in a community garden – as an added bonus, gardening is great physical activity!
  5. The Power of Choice – We’ve worked with researchers at Cornell University and found that introducing a greater variety of fruits and vegetables to kids more frequently, while still giving them the ability to choose what they take and when, can increase their chances of eating these healthier offerings.
Photo credit: Chartwells - Salad bar day, Grand Blank, MI

Photo credit: Chartwells – Salad bar day, Grand Blank, MI

We’ve used the above in our own cafés to encourage healthy eating habits, and I hope you’ll try them at home with your family too!

Whitney Bateson, RD, is the Director of Nutrition and Wellness for Chartwells School Dining Services. Chartwells provides meals to almost 4,000 schools nationwide. Learn more at

Chartwells School Dining Services has a financial interest in National PTA, and has been invited to submit a blog post as part of their engagement with PTA. National PTA does not endorse any commercial entity, product, or service, and no endorsement is implied by this content.

Slide image photo credit: Chartwells – Girl Scouts making meatballs, Forest Hills, MI

Healthy Lifestyles doesn’t have to be ‘The Fun Killer’

IMG_7068Three years ago, I was part of a small group of parents who set out to create a healthy lifestyles initiative at our school. At the time, I was in my second year as PTA President and this effort was viewed as “Liz’s Thing.” I was even called “The Fun Killer” (I didn’t take it too personally…).

Many people in our community saw this movement as confrontational; they were not happy about fruit vs. cookies or water vs. juice at potlucks and school-wide celebrations. When we eliminated bake sales that year, it was the final straw. This change was too much, too fast. Healthier lifestyles at our school was going to be more of an uphill challenge than I could have ever imagined. And, we didn’t get very far.

With my tenure as president long over, last spring our group reconvened. We talked to more parents, the principal, teachers and professionals. We created a school-wide Wellness Committee and were upfront about our failed attempts to create a healthy lifestyles initiative. We applied for the PTA’s Healthy Lifestyles Energy Balance 101 grant, which we received! We were convinced that the framework provided by the grant could improve the message to our community.

As it turns out, it still has not been easy and I often still feel like a salmon swimming upstream.

“Remember to start slow,” I said to myself. So, we set out to tackle the “doable” parts of our grant. We created an incentive, Fitbucks, to increase participation in any Wellness Committee-related activity including:

  • Participation in our monthly Walk & Roll to School days
  • Attendance at an adults-only lecture by a nutrition expert
  • Participation in our Walk-a-thon fundraiser
  • Participation in our first ever Yoga Recess, and
  • An all-school Dance Party, a Community Cooking Class (hopefully) and a Wellness Photo Wall before the school year ends.

We have monthly Fitbucks drawings and have given away jump ropes, shoelaces, schwings (wings for shoes), an hour on a smoothie bike to the winner’s classroom, a school-logo apron and book for those who attend nutrition events, and two yoga mats! There will be an end-of-the-year Fitbuck drawing for a grand prize. The students LOVE the monthly drawings. I feel like we are on the road to “branding” the Fitbucks idea, while also generating interest and even excitement in the Wellness activities. Most importantly, our students are a formidable resource to reach their families about Wellness Committee offerings.

I know that change is not easy. And I know that our committee will not accomplish everything we set out to do in our grant. But, we have been more nimble and flexible and learned to “read the tea leaves” better. This is my ninth and final year at our school, and I’m excited about the direction that things are headed. Some new families are energized and are willing to continue the healthy lifestyles message. And, I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe, next year will be a little easier.

Liz Isaacs is the Wellness Committee Chair at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School. She served on the PTA Executive Board for seven years, as President and in community building and advocacy roles. She is married and has three children in San Francisco public schools.