Our children enter the world with limitless possibility, but too many face barriers that inhibit them from reaching their full potential in academics and in life. In my 35 years as an educator and administrator, I’ve grown to understand that the greatest enemy of our children’s destiny is poor health. One of the best ways to positively affect a child’s future is through schools that emphasize healthy lifestyles.
Outside of the home, kids spend the majority of their time at school. In Balsz School District in Phoenix, Arizona, where I’ve been superintendent for the past seven years, more than 90 percent of our students come from low-income families, qualifying them for free meals at school. Many are recent immigrants and more than half come to school learning English as a second language. When students go home, many of their families lack transportation to grocery stores, preventing them from accessing fresh, healthy foods.
In 2010, Balsz School District joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program to guide our efforts to make our schools healthier environments that support kids’ learning. Being a superintendent has allowed me to work with the Alliance to promote healthy schools and craft policies that support school health.
At the district level, we’ve changed our policies to prohibit using food as a reward or punishment and we only offer healthy fundraisers. We’ve also reframed the idea of classroom parties to focus on the collegiality of celebrations ‒ a time for students and faculty to enjoy a special activity together outside of their typical routine.
Our A-Z fruit and vegetable bar exposes kids to new varieties of fresh produce that start with each letter of the alphabet. Seeing other students experiment with new flavors and textures encourages them to be open-minded and to think about what they’re putting into their bodies. In addition, our schools have community gardens where students and their families learn about how their food grows.
All of these strategies are designed to create a welcoming and nurturing school environment. We start our school day with universal free breakfast in the classroom, which has improved our attendance and encourages kids to arrive on time. And when students have better attendance and start their day with a healthy meal, they’re better prepared for success.
But the true magnitude of our efforts won’t be realized tomorrow or even next year. We’ll know that we’ve succeeded when the next generation passes on these healthy behaviors to their children, creating a ripple effect in our future communities.
As an Alliance Ambassador, I am proud to speak up for school health and I welcome others to join me. You can get started by setting an example with your own food choices, registering your local school with the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program, or joining a community board of directors to advocate for better infrastructure and healthier policies in your district. Together, we can give all students a greater opportunity to live up to their full potential.