St. Columba Catholic School is jumping into student nutrition like never before as it goes for the gold medal in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge.
Schools across the country can participate in the voluntary program promoted by first lady Michelle Obama and designed to improve health and nutrition in local schools.
St. Columba, a private school in Durango, has 191 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and also has a preschool.
To earn a gold award, St. Columba has to meet standards in several categories, including school lunches, nutrition education, physical education and student participation. It has to meet those criteria for four consecutive weeks.
School lunches, for example, must include a different fruit, vegetable and grain every day of the week and must meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutritional standards.
The school’s chef, Scott Arbaugh, has jumped into the challenge with gusto.
“Why not go for it?” Arbaugh said. “The best way to combat obesity is to start teaching kids (about food and nutrition) at a younger age.”
In addition to creating meals, Arbaugh is working to recruit more students to the School Lunch Program. Almost 69 percent of St. Columba’s students buy lunches at school right now, but the school needs that number to be 70 percent to get the gold.
As part of the challenge, the school also is incorporating nutrition education into its curriculum for the first time. So far, students have learned about the food pyramid and the components of a balanced meal. Most of his students don’t know what proportions of protein, grains and vegetables their meals should have, Arbaugh said.
Meanwhile, Sabrina Buckley, the school’s information, communication and technology teacher, is incorporating nutrition-related computer games into her classes and is helping the fifth-graders with an online school-wellness investigation.
And last week, the middle-schoolers took nutrition education outside the classroom through a field trip to the local Blue Horizon Farm flour mill in Hesperus and Bread bakery in Durango. The trip was part of a larger unit about the grains of the world.
The thinking goes that the more educated students are about where food comes from and the process it goes through before it gets to the plate, the better they will be able to make healthy meal choices, Arbaugh said.
Other districts throughout the county acknowledged the merits of the Healthier U.S. School Challenge but haven’t yet completed the program for various reasons.
Durango School District 9-R considered participating last year but had to drop it because of staffing changes, said Krista Garand, director of student nutrition. The Ignacio School District also strove to meet the challenge criteria last year but ran into difficulties because of food costs, said Director of Food Services Kim Cotta. The Bayfield School District is focusing on other initiatives such as the farm-to-school program, said Julie Whitmore, the district’s director of nutrition.
Most of the schools that have received awards through the healthier schools challenge are concentrated on the Front Range, mainly in Boulder Valley School District, said Lindsay Hucknall, a senior consultant with the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition.
Back at St. Columba, the healthier schools initiative isn’t the only food-related project on the radar.
Science teacher Lu Boren is spearheading an effort to install a worm-composting system at the school that will be used for much of the cafeteria’s food waste. The composting system should be up and running in the next several weeks, she said.
Boren also is raising money to build a greenhouse and a community garden on the school’s campus.
The garden, the compost project and the healthier schools challenge will end up complementing each other.
“It all goes together,” Boren said.