FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is ramping up efforts to ensure students in Northwest Arkansas have access to healthy food at school.
The university’s Northwest campus plans to work with six school districts — beginning this year with Bentonville and Springdale — in a nutrition program called Creating Healthy Environments for Schools, or CHEFS for short.
The university will add two districts in 2021 and 2022 with hope of expanding it further, said Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor at the Northwest campus. The Alice L. Walton Foundation is paying for the program’s first three years with a $1.28 million grant, McElfish said.
A team of dietitians will review the nutrient analysis of meals served and provide achievable steps to reduce sugar, saturated fat and sodium while increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, according to a university news release.
These steps will go beyond what the federal government requires in its National School Lunch Program. There is no regulation on sugar, said Melissa Ralston, who works with the Bentonville School District as a nutrition associate manager and dietitian for Aramark, which handles Bentonville’s food service.
“I find it interesting that sugar is not regulated. That’s something we should be watching,” Ralston said.
The university team will work with schools on other changes, such as moving the salad bar to the front of the lunch line to try to get kids to eat more fruit and vegetables and improving a cafeteria’s atmosphere through signs and attractive displays, according to the release.
The goal is to make the changes “as simple and as impactful as possible,” McElfish said.
“The long-term vision is to give children an opportunity to have much less of a disease burden than their parents and grandparents do and shift Arkansas from being one of the least healthy places to live to being one of the healthiest places to live,” she said.
The new program expands one the university initiated a few years ago to help the Springdale School District reduce sodium in its meals. The district cut more than 11% of the sodium as a result of the partnership, which brought the sodium content down to a healthy level for kids, McElfish said.
Gena Smith, the Springdale district’s child nutrition director, said the partnership has been great.
“It’s nice to have an outside perspective on what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We always have room for improvement, and it’s nice to have someone else looking for ways to make it better for the kids.”
One way the university has helped is by analyzing the data about what food items children are taking in the cafeterias, then providing that analysis in an easy format the district can use to make beneficial changes, Smith said.
The program also intends to get students involved in taste-testing and picking their favorite healthful school lunch recipes.
During the past school year, for example, the district and university invited high school students to taste-test some enchiladas that were lower in sodium and made with black beans and sweet potatoes, Smith said.
“Whether it ever shows up on a menu, it still was a good educational experience for our high school kids,” she said. “Anytime you can have a child try something that’s healthier, it might make them make a healthier choice next time.”
Ralston said the university reached out to her about the possibility of Bentonville participating in the program. She in turn presented the idea to Deputy Superintendent Janet Schwanhausser, who approved.
Schools already follow nutrition regulations mandated by the federal government, but like Smith, Ralston believes there are always ways to improve.
She has found the university to be a valuable resource for educational materials and for connecting her with other districts to learn what they’re doing to make their food more nutritious, she said.
School cafeterias nationally served nearly 5 billion lunches in 2018, with about three-quarters of the lunches free or at a reduced price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Research sponsored by the department’s Economic Research Service found children from food-insecure and marginally secure households were more likely to eat school meals and received more of their food and nutrient intake from school meals than did other children.
Here are the places and times Northwest Arkansas’ largest school districts are distributing meals this summer. Meals are provided free to everyone 18 years old and younger.
Lunch, along with a breakfast meal for the following day, is distributed 11 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday, at the following locations through Aug. 7:
• Bentonville High School north building, 1801 S.E. J St.
• Bentonville Public Library, 405 S. Main St.
• Helping Hands, 2602 S.W. D St.
• Centerton City Park, 290 N. Main St., Centerton
• New Life Church, 103 Riordan Road, Bella Vista
The School District provides 10 meals — five breakfasts, five lunches — for each child, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays through July 28 at the following locations:
• Asbell Elementary School, 1500 N. Sang Ave.
• Butterfield Trail Elementary School, 3050 Old Missouri Road
• Happy Hollow Elementary School, 2175 E. Peppervine Drive
• Owl Creek School, 375 N. Rupple Road
• Fayetteville Public School food truck at Fayetteville Public Library, 401 W. Mountain St.
Drive-up and pickup meals are available 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through July at the following locations:
• Garfield Elementary School, 18432 Marshall St., Garfield
• First Baptist Church, 409 Johnson Ave., Lowell
• Elmwood Middle School, 1610 S. 13th St.
• Lingle Middle School, 901 N. 13th St.
• Mathias Elementary School, 1609 N. 24th St.
• New Technology High School, 2922 S. First St.
Children receive two lunch meals and two breakfast meals on Mondays and Wednesdays and one breakfast and one lunch on Fridays. Pickup times are 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. through July at the following locations:
• Bayyari Elementary School, 2199 Scottsdale St.
• Kelly Middle School, 1879 E. Robinson Ave.
• George Elementary School, 2878 S. Powell St.
• Smith Elementary School, 3600 Falcon Road
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette
Dave Perozek can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWADaveP.