It’s a battle that’s raged ever since broccoli first sprouted — how do adults get kids to eat healthy foods without all the phony airplane sounds?
This is where Michelle Fombelle and Kaitlyn Streitmatter, a pair of University of Illinois Extension educators, step in to investigate all manner of childhood eating habits.
In January, 2016, the U of I Extension garnered $4.5 million over three years to help by providing training and education to school food-service professionals statewide. Funding for the program comes from the Illinois State Board of Education, which oversees the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.
Fombelle holds a master’s degree in public health from the University of Southern Illinois and is the U of I Extension SNAP-Education Extension Educator over Tazewell, Peoria, Mason and Fulton counties. Fombelle works in tandem with Streitmatter, a U of I Extension program c coordinator, to manage the hefty four-county district to which she is assigned.
When a majority of a school’s students qualify for the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs, that school becomes eligible for a number of grants and programs, including SNAP-Ed.
“In schools we are reaching administration, parents, and students within the same district for greater impact,” explained Fombelle. “Kaitlyn is going to play a big role in marketing SNAP-Ed and representing SNAP-Ed in the communities.”
On Sept. 29, both were at Don D. Shute Elementary School in East Peoria to assess the lunchroom for food presentation and student dining preferences. This is the first assessment Streitmatter has performed as she begins evaluations in Tazewell County.
“We look to see how food is presented to the students,” Fombell said. “Is the white milk highlighted first before the chocolate milk? How often are fruit and vegetables served?”
U of I Extension administrators adhere to the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which offers low- and no-cost changes to encourage students to select, eat, and enjoy healthier foods in school without eliminating their choices.
Fombelle and Streitmatter also assess the marketing strategies each school employs, such as menu boards which emphasize the day’s healthiest options, and posters which educate children on healthier eating.
“Posters can be expensive, so we direct schools to organizations that offer them for free,” Fombelle said. “The USDA is a great place to find posters to hang in lunchrooms.”
Along with promoting a more appealing cafeteria atmosphere, they also look for patterns in the student’s habits to determine ways to ensure that food will land in their bellies, rather than the trash can.
“In one case, we noticed that the kids weren’t eating the fruit,” Fombelle said. “After the school began serving the fruit cold, instead of at room temperature, they would eat it.”’
Fombelle also noted that kids don’t like toasted buns and most students would rather all gravy be served on the side. This becomes a problem, however, when serving biscuits and gravy.
“The kids eat the biscuit, then throw away the gravy,” Fombelle said. “Then they miss the protein portion from the meat in the gravy.”
In the effort to establish healthier breakfasts, lunches and snacks, Fombelle and Streitmatter help lunch room administrators come up with creative ways to attract children to foods they typically push away.
“We try to come up with adjective-based names,” Fombelle said. “Broccoli is called Dinosaur Trees and carrots are X-Ray Vision Carrots. Kids really like these names.”
The SNAP-Ed program also includes student food tastings of leafy greens, beans and red and orange vegetables. Students are rewarded with stickers that say, “I tried it!”, then the schools decide which of the items are best to incorporate into the menu.
Involvement in the SNAP-Ed program is voluntary, but schools that participate in the assessment process do qualify for funding from the USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge program.
Fombelle said she and Streitmatter are beginning assessments in the larger school districts first, and will continue until each qualifying school in their region is complete. All schools undergo at least two assessments of all meal and snack programs.
“We have a lot of area to cover,” Fombelle said. “Kaitlyn is working with Tazewell County, while I work on Peoria, but we’re getting great cooperation from the schools.”
— Extension program provides training on healthy school meals —