Originally published on My Moon by Megan Murillo

For today's post, I want to introduce you to my friend, Martha.  I first met Martha when she lived in Pueblo and we bonded over having little kids, being transplants to the Steel City and living on the south side of town.  We'd gather at parks in warm and cold weather, exchange mommy notes and talk about raising small children.  Eventually, Martha, husband and kids moved back to Wisconsin to be closer to family, but we've still kept in touch over the years.  Martha, like myself, is on her own journey to bring healthier food choices not only to her own children, but to others, as well.  Since I admired Martha's perspective on the playground years ago, I thought I'd ask her to share with me (and you as well!) a little bit about her own experience with food in schools.  Thanks, Martha, for taking the time to share!

Can you tell us a little about yourself?  

I’m a wife, a mom to two inspiring children, Ella – 8, and Joshua – 6, an educator, a writer, a lifelong Green Bay Packer fan, and an avid outdoor enthusiast.

Martha, as a director of a preschool in Green Bay, WI, can you tell us how you brought healthier choices to the school?

When I became the director of our preschool in 2010, I made two immediate changes leading to healthier food choices. The first change is that all snacks, which are provided by our families, need to be healthy snacks. We only serve fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy to our children, with no exceptions. Our second change is the way that we celebrate birthdays with our children. Birthdays are always special and should be celebrated; however, we choose to celebrate them without food. Instead, parents are encouraged to donate a new or used book to their child’s classroom. We believe that donating a book promotes early literacy and also helps us to celebrate the child for who they are.

This year our preschool has embraced a program, with the assistance of a registered dietitian, that we call Eat a Rainbow. Our preschool children have been working all year, at school and at home, to eat fruits and vegetables that are all colors of the rainbow. We have eaten a variety, some familiar and some brand new for many of our children. One favorite that we have discovered our students love are yellow peppers! The milder favor of the pepper appeals to them, and they enjoy eating something yellow besides bananas. Our families work to find fruits and vegetables that are local and in season in our area, as well as exposing the children to varieties that are not native to our area, such as mangoes.

We also serve only milk and water during our snack times. We are lucky to live within miles of many local dairies, where our milk is produced. Through the recommendation of our dietitian, we promote 1% or skim dairy milk to our families.

How was this change received by teachers, parents and students?

Most importantly, our students welcome the change. We model trying new foods and we always give our students a choice. For example, we recently had radishes for a snack in one of our classes. One of the kids said radishes are too spicy, and then most of the kids became reluctant to try. Our teachers suggest a “mouse bite” to at least give a food a try. Most often “mouse bites” result in an entire radish or other vegetable being devoured!

Our students also enjoy cooking and participating in providing our snacks. This year alone at our preschool we have made: applesauce, vegetable soup, pickles, and fruit smoothies. When the children participate in the making, they most often eat the entire snack they have created.

Our teachers willingly embraced the change and some have enjoyed trying new foods right alongside their students!

Almost all of our parents have happily made the switch to healthy snacks. We provide a list with suggested snacks as well as a list with fruits and vegetables by rainbow colors. We work with our parents, as partners, to educate our children and help them develop lifelong healthy habits.

How do you think food choices affect student learning?

Our snack is a part of our school day, and healthy foods fuel healthy learners. Providing our children with foods that fortify them assists the children in being able to use their brains and their bodies to engage in meaningful learning.

As a parent, how is the food/nutrition environment at school?

Food is a big part of our culture in northeastern Wisconsin. This culture is pervasive, even at the elementary level. When my daughter started kindergarten, almost three years ago, I was shocked at the amount of food that was involved in her school day – all outside of lunch. She was offered birthday treats, food rewards, snacks, candy and more nearly every day.

How are you working to bring healthier choices to your children’s elementary school?

Throughout the last year I have been working with our elementary school and the school leadership team to lead a school wellness initiative. To date we have eliminated food rewards in the classrooms, such as teachers offering a lollipop for a good grade on a math test or a returned homework sheet.

We are continuing our work on eliminating food for birthdays. I am hopeful that by the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, instead of food for birthdays, we will have another option in place, such as: having each child donate $1 on their birthday, then the class can donate the sum at the end of the school year to the charity of their choice, having a family donate a piece of playground equipment or a book to the classroom on their child’s birthday, or having the school recognize each child on their birthday through the gift of a book or pencil or other learning related gift.

Your son has food allergies to soy and strawberries.  Can you tell us little about how his allergy is handled at school?

Before the school year started, I spoke with the district nurse. We established an allergic reaction plan for my son. I also met with my son’s teacher and provided her with ample snacks safe for my son and his classmates. In the first weeks of school, I visited his class and read a book called, The Bugabees, to his classmates. Both my son and I explained how certain foods make him very sick and others can cause life-threatening reactions. Educating his classmates has been a key to his safety this year.

We only send homemade lunches and snacks to school with both of our children. We know they are safe for my son to eat, and provide him, his teachers, and his parents with a level of comfort. Plus, we know that our children’s lunches and snacks are much healthier than those offered by the school food service!

We are often saddened and disheartened for our son and other children with food allergies and dietary concerns, when they are separated and singled out, when birthday treats, food rewards, and other foods are offered in the classroom. When one of my son’s classmates brings a birthday treat that is not safe for him to eat, he eats a safe snack sent from home, while all the rest of his classmates eat a cupcake or a piece of cake. This disparity would not be acceptable in any other circumstance for children at school.

Outside of school, how do you keep your family healthy?

We are a very active family. Every afternoon or evening we take a walk or a bike ride together. On the weekends you most often will find us on a hiking trail, on a bike path, or in our backyard. We encourage our children to play outside as much as possible, in all seasons and types of weather.

In our backyard we have a children’s garden, where our kids grow their own vegetables. Last year we made a teepee out of bamboo poles and pole beans – an edible fort! We never discourage our kids from digging in the dirt, playing in the mud, and creating their own imaginative fun.

We also have a family garden that seems to get bigger every year! While our growing season is short in Wisconsin, we plant spring, summer and fall vegetables, to make the most of it. We also supplement our garden through local farmer’s markets. We try to buy local as much as possible, and when not, to buy in season.

Together we make most of our meals and encourage our kids to be active in the kitchen. We are trying to raise our children to know where their food comes from, to buy it as close to the source as possible, and to know how the food fuels the activities that they love.