The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) will expand partnerships with local school districts to implement a school nutrition enrichment program in Northwest Arkansas to provide healthier food choices for students. The program expansion is supported by a $1.28 million grant from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
It will build on a successful pilot program implemented by UAMS’ Office of Community Health & Research to improve nutrition in schools.
The UAMS school nutrition program will work with six school districts in Northwest Arkansas – beginning with Bentonville and Springdale in 2020 – to implement a comprehensive nutrition program. UAMS will add two additional school districts each year in 2021 and 2022, and has hopes of expanding the program through Northwest Arkansas and the state.
“We have been very successful in reducing the amount of sodium in school lunches and providing healthier food choices for students,” said Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., vice chancellor for the UAMS Northwest Regional Campus. “Thanks to this additional funding, we can expand our efforts and help more schools build sustainable and healthier nutrition programs with a focus on reducing sugar and saturated fat, and increasing fruits and vegetables.”
In the pilot program, the UAMS Healthy Food System team assisted the K-12 Springdale School District and meal programs with food service guidelines and nutrition standards, new practices designed to improve menus and food preparation practices primarily focused on reducing sodium.
The UAMS school nutrition program will support each district to make significant and realistic nutritional improvements to their food, and work to sustain those changes through hands-on staff training, coaching and support to overcome budget issues and other barriers.
Some of the recommendations include moving a salad bar to the front of lunch lines to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption or reducing fat and sodium in certain recipes.
“The goal is to make the changes as simple and impactful as possible,” McElfish said. “We don’t want the schools to have the added burden when making these changes to improve the health of students.”
The partnership will be tailored to the unique needs of each district’s child nutrition program and will be driven by the involvement of administrators, teachers, school nurses and parents. The UAMS Healthy Food System team will work alongside the district child nutrition director to develop goals and timelines for the project.
The program also focuses on a high level of student engagement. Students are involved in taste testing and picking their favorite healthy school lunch recipes. Past engagement has included a district-wide Student Food Show, featuring taste testing of healthier alternatives to popular foods and voting for favorites that were eventually added to the permanent cycle menu.