Beth Reed is a Wellness Coordinator at a public school in East Harlem. She also co-founded the Public School Wellness Committee and teaches nutrition and health and wellness classes to the kids in her school. In addition, Beth, along with her committee, is working with school staff, parents, and local bodegas to help them identify/stock healthy foods for Harlem’s littlest residents. Beyond basic food education, Beth’s goal is to literally change the way kids experience their food. We have no doubt she’ll do that and more; she’ll change their lives.
1. How did you come to be the Wellness Coordinator at your school?
In my second year of teaching at a public school in East Harlem, we had an assembly for faculty with the NYC Department of Health. The woman who spoke to us was talking about preservatives and the importance of health in young children. This was coming off recent talks with my cousin about the negative effects of preservatives, High Fructose Corn Syrup, in particular, and was something myself and my family began to cut out. The meeting ended with the statement that the NYC Department of Health was interested in working with schools in the areas of health and wellness. I was so excited about this faculty conference and approached the woman afterwards about how to get involved. She and I began to meet and talk about things we could do at the school, snack policies, a Wellness Committee and more. One by one, more teachers began to get involved and we formed the first Wellness Committee, then called the Public School Taskforce for Better Health, but as time went on, we thought the Wellness Committee brought more of a sense of sustainability. This committee continued for three more years, when I then approached my principal about teaching Health and Wellness at our school. She approved and supported the program, which is now in its second year. I continued to outreach to the neighborhood through local Bodegas, school and staff to spread the message about no junk food in school, healthy snacks, encouraging our salad bar, bringing a free breakfast program through SchoolFood and coordinating it into our school, writing grants, which we just got a water cooler for our students!, and working to bring in more health and wellness based programs. (The “title” just came as the work began to snowball;))
2. What do you notice is the biggest issue with kids and their understanding of nutrition?
Understanding what “healthy” means, they always say, “oh it’s healthy”, but I do not think they totally know why, which is why this year it is my goal for them to understand nutrients, vitamins, and the specifics about the food they eat and the connection to their bodies. Also they do not always want to try something new when it is just put on their plates, which is why education around this topic is so important.
3. How can parents teach their kids about proper nutrition?
For them to understand themselves and model at home. We had a “sugar workshop” last year on the effects of soda, juice and other sugary drinks and a lot of parents were shocked with the findings. A lot of them wrote in the feedback that they were going to give their children more water. Also there are a lot of old recipes out there that can be changed to be improved to be healthier, it is just about time to talk, share and experiment in a non-threatening way. I would love to have parents’ cooking workshops where this can happen.
4. Any tips for parents dealing with picky eaters who refuse to eat their veggies?
Make it fun, experiment and make children part of the prep work. We all enjoy food better when we prepare it ourselves and kids are the same. No one is fond of the same old veggies everyday, mix it up and be creative.
5. How can schools get more involved in teaching their students about better eating habits?
Finding the time to educate around food, having a salad bar in the cafeteria, promoting the importance of breakfast and showing how food is fun! There are so many teachable moments around food and all units of study can incorporate food, math, science, social studies, reading, they all incorporate, discuss and highlight food, make the connections and bring food into your classrooms!
6. Any books for kids on nutrition or healthy eating that you would recommend?
I’m still looking for the right one with the right message, I tend to pull from a lot of things, maybe I will write the right one, one day;)
7. Any books for parents? …
Just some materials, handouts etc., but no books yet.
8. What activities do you do with the kids in the classroom to help enforce your wellness message?
I try to bring in fresh ingredients as much as I can for the students to get a hands on approach to learning and exploring, but it proves expensive and I do not get to do that as much as I would like. Other wise, we work on the message behind healthy foods, art projects promoting health programs in the school, and this year I hope to put out our first cookbook!
9. What (or who) inspired you to campaign for a wellness/nutrition program in your school?
Walking into school around 7:30 am and seeing students eating bright blue drinks, eating candy and chips made me know change through education and exposure was needed!
10. Anything else you want to share with us about your job?
This process has been very exciting, but daunting at the same time. We all get bombarded with messages about food all day and it isn’t about overnight change, but truly a village working together to raise a child and this is the work I continue to do. I want the work to be sustainable beyond me and for the students to get exposure throughout the school, community and home. The work we do everyday works towards this goal and I look forward to a year of educating our children around food and the reasons behind “healthy,” and how to make good choices in such busy, not always available times.