Filling in the Blanks with Melanie Kay-Wyatt: Healthy food choices fuel success

Filling in the Blanks with Melanie Kay-Wyatt:  Healthy food choices fuel success

By Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Ed.D

Access to healthy food options has a direct impact on academic achievement, performance and overall well-being. With March celebrating National Nutrition Month and School Breakfast Week, that is food for thought I would like to address as it impacts our Alexandria City Public Schools’ students and their ability to learn.

Nutrient-rich foods support brain health and cognitive function, leading to improved memory and concentration. Research shows a lack of nutrients may cause students to lose focus easily and be more irritable and less engaged in learning. In addition, getting adequate nutrition through food can support a healthy immune system, reducing absences from school due to sickness or injuries.

This year’s “Beyond the Table” theme focuses on the farm-to-fork aspect of nutrition and drives home the importance of sustainable eating patterns that support student health and well-being as well as support environmental health. Sustainable eating patterns include plant-based food choices and locally sourced ingredients. Through our School Gardens Program, ACPS strives to cultivate a community of life-long learners who are empowered to actively engage in academic and environmental learning. Its vision is to inspire every student to care about the well-being of themselves, their community and the earth.

At Alexandria City High School, our nutrition staff offers a plant forward menu in its Nature’s Cafe. As demand for vegetarian and plant-based alternatives grow, ACPS has committed to offering hot vegetarian entree items daily at all schools. We also have salad bars which we call Greens ‘n More Bars filled with fresh fruits and vegetables at all schools. These salad bars are a wonderful way to allow students to select and sample unlimited quantities of a variety of fresh produce, as students who choose their own fruits and veggies are more likely to eat them!

In an effort to help students expand their food choices, our nutrition staff regularly incorporates new items onto our menus. We promote the acceptance of these items through taste testing events and educational awareness. Knowing that it is also important to foster a welcoming environment, our team serves up appealing food options with great customer service and comfortable cafeterias.

Our students gain a better understanding of where food comes from through ACPS’ garden-based learning opportunities that help make connections to curriculum concepts. From sowing seeds, to harvesting produce, to regular garden maintenance, students experience the process of growing. Students also build other life skills by caring for plants which encourages responsibility as they learn about environmental stewardship while at the same time they engage in physical activity in a safe environment.

Our ACPS Gardens Program aims to teach and inspire students to be kind to our planet. One sustainable choice we are hoping to explore more is composting our food scraps to feed our soil, an idea already employed by the ACHS Garden Club as it composts food scraps from the cafeteria for use in their school garden space. At Lyles- Crouch Traditional Academy, a class of fourth grade students recently built a compost bin to begin learning about and composting food waste from their cafeteria.

ACPS also maintains two community gardens. The garden at George Washington Middle School functions as a collective growing space while at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology individuals can reserve and tend to plots.

Nutritious eating habits really are an important ingredient in helping our students achieve better outcomes – academically, socially and emotionally. Skipping a meal, especially breakfast, can lead to students becoming irritable because they are hungry. In turn, it becomes harder for students to focus, problem solve and retain crucial information. Let us help fuel our students for success, encouraging healthy meal choices each day!

The writer is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools.