Nearly one in four children is obese or overweight in New Jersey. When Dr. Laurie Cancalosi, the Long Branch Public Schools health and physical education K-12 supervisor, started reviewing the statistics, she admitted that they were alarming.

Like many districts across the state, the Long Branch Public School District, located in Monmouth County, has data that indicates students have a body mass index (BMI) higher than recommended by the national standards. At Long Branch Middle School, for example, 93 percent of the students were not meeting the state standards for the cardiovascular fitness assessment.

“There is a systemic problem that causes a fundamental breakdown of our students’ overall fitness levels,” Cancalosi said. “Lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating habits are major contributing factors; we knew we had to address the problem head-on.”

Healthy Kids Have Higher Attendance Rates And Test Scores Physical activity is an essential tool for preventing and treating childhood obesity and related health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. Increasingly, scientific evidence also suggests that healthier students are better learners, and physical activity can improve student academic achievement as measured by classroom participation, grades and standardized test scores; and can positively influence factors such as attention span, classroom behavior and attendance.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with other leading public health, medical and educational organizations and researchers, recommend children and adolescents be physically active at least sixty minutes per day. Studies that looked at extending the number of physical education classes for students, or the amount of class time spent in them, showed improved overall academic test scores. Reading test scores improved and students were more likely to pass math and English achievement tests.

Wellness in schools also goes hand-in-hand with sustainability. Sustainable Jersey for Schools, a non-profit organization which certifies schools that achieve sustainability actions, includes “Student and Staff Wellness,” and other health-based initiatives, in the list of actions schools can undertake to become more sustainable. Since 2015, Sustainable Jersey has provided some $706,000 in grants, plus many webinars, workshops and other training opportunities to help schools and districts meet their goals.

Catching the Fever The Long Branch Middle School is one school that has benefitted from Sustainable Jersey for Schools’ emphasis on wellness. There, Cancalosi and school staff developed a comprehensive program called “Fitness Fever, Catch It.” Staff implemented twice-weekly mandatory fitness days which integrated nutritional values into physical education and health education classes, and incorporated use of the FitnessGram program, a youth physical fitness assessment, education and reporting tool. The school applied for, and received, a Sustainable Jersey for Schools Small Grant funded by the New Jersey Department of Health, which provided $4,000 to cover the costs of the FitnessGram program and other technology for tracking outcomes.

Data collected from FitnessGram was used to drive improvements in classroom instruction. The school implemented fitness day programs to help students increase their cardiovascular endurance, BMI and student achievement. Students were involved in brain breaks throughout the day; circuit training in physical education classes; and fitness games to work on their skills.

In partnership with the New Jersey Marathon, students also participated in the New Jersey Kids Marathon. Students were challenged to earn 25 miles of activity over eight weeks with the help of teachers, parents, friends and family. Then, students participated in a kid marathon on the Long Branch Promenade, running a 1.2 mile course along the last stretch of the actual New Jersey Marathon and ending at the official finish line. Students received a journal to track their weekly progress and wore pedometers to see their individual results during physical education class.

The comprehensive nutrition- and fitness-based campaign has had impressive results. The teachers’ FitnessGram data showed 95 percent of students in grades 6-8 increased overall fitness scores. At the same time, students raised their moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) scores and lowered their body mass index (BMI). Student Growth Objectives were also measured using FitnessGram data throughout the year.

According to the middle school teachers’ Student Growth Objectives for fitness, the students’ growth objectives increased by 98 percent in grades 6-8.

“Each of the teachers reported that the Student Growth Objectives had improved,” Cancalosi said. “The program had built-in cost savings, as the educational materials and sessions were provided by our food services representative and the Alliance for Healthier Generations. We didn’t have to buy books and use staff time to find the information ourselves. We’re lucky to be working with Long Branch Superintendent Dr. Michael Salvatore, and a school board that is supportive. Each idea was reviewed and met with a unanimous ‘go for it’ response.”

Nine schools in the Long Branch district have applied for certification with Sustainable Jersey for Schools submitting documentation for review. Schools that achieve certification will be recognized at the Sustainable Jersey for Schools awards ceremony at Workshop 2016.

School Breakfast Programs Impact Health The School Breakfast Program, a federally-assisted meal program, offers children breakfast at school. However, the majority of school breakfast programs in New Jersey provide free- or reduced-price breakfast to students before the start of school, and many eligible students do not arrive at school early enough to receive it.

The goal of the New Jersey Food for Thought School Breakfast Campaign and the Sustainable Jersey for Schools “Breakfast After the Bell” certification action is to increase the number of children eating a healthy breakfast on school days, by improving the effectiveness of school breakfast programs. Breakfast After the Bell is one way for school districts or individual schools to re-imagine the breakfast program by offering it at a time when more students will benefit, in the classroom, after the bell has rung.

Cape May City Elementary School achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification at the bronze level in 2015, the first year of the program. Sandy Sandmeyer-Bryan led the effort. She serves as the school librarian; the Program for Academic and Creative Enrichment (PACE) teacher; Earth Club advisor and Cape May Elementary School Green Team leader. Cape May City Elementary School has a universal, after the bell, breakfast-in-the-classroom program that has resulted in greater participation and a healthier school overall.

As Sandmeyer-Bryan explained, “prior to our implementation of universal breakfast in the classroom, breakfast was served in the cafeteria each morning as the students arrived. Everyone gathers in this area before going to the classrooms. It’s a busy, social time for the students, and we found our breakfast participation to be only about  20 percent. After considering all the advantages of students having the opportunity for a daily breakfast at school, we decided to launch our breakfast program.” 

Sandmeyer-Bryan said some teachers were concerned at first, and there were meetings to discuss how to best implement the program. “By offering breakfast free of charge, right in the classrooms, our participation has soared to 80 percent during this third year,” she said. “It took away any stigma associated with free breakfast because it was open to everyone and it was more convenient. Any reservations faculty had about the program being too intrusive or difficult have worked themselves out. The federal reimbursement we receive helps us to be able to accomplish this financially.”

Since the school breakfast program is federally funded, most districts with high concentrations of low-income children can feed all students at little or no extra cost.

Serving Up Breakfast At Cape May Elementary School, cafeteria staff prepares the components of a United States Department of Agriculture – (USDA) approved breakfast and delivers the items to each classroom before students arrive. On the menu are such items as whole-grain bagels with toppings, yogurt cups, whole-grain cereal bowls with fat-free milk and fruit. Once students are in the classrooms, they can select a complete, reimbursable breakfast with the help of teachers, aides and USDA signage. Teachers then use a student roster to identify those who had a breakfast, so food service staff can prepare the monthly reimbursement voucher.

Said Sandmeyer-Bryan, “we’ve noticed attendance has improved and students arrive on time. We think it is because they can count on getting breakfast at school. Sustainable Jersey for Schools has provided a roadmap and helped our school look at the big picture of sustainability. Rather than having one teacher advocating for recycling, we now have a motivated group of teachers, facilities staff, the school board and a network of municipal and community groups helping us work on sustainability initiatives. We meet with Superintendent Victoria Zelenak to determine the actions that we can do in order to create a more sustainable school with cost savings.” She explained that new partnerships have strengthened the program and provided in-kind services. The school works with the Coast Guard, Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, Kiwanis Club, Cape May Garden Club and the local police and fire departments.

Breakfast in Edison Edison Township schools also offer a Breakfast After the Bell program. According to Superintendent Dr. Richard O’Malley, “before the district began serving Breakfast After the Bell, only 400 students ate breakfast daily. Now, Edison serves breakfast to more than 4,000 students every day.” The program has paid for itself, O’Malley said. Students who are not eligible for free meals pay $1.00 for breakfast. Since the federal meal reimbursements for eligible students have increased, the district has incurred no additional costs.

Sustainable Jersey Provides Help for Schools Sustainable schools are healthy schools, and schools designed to promote health and well-being will see benefits. About one-third of New Jersey school districts and 500 schools are participating in Sustainable Jersey for Schools so far.

Sustainable Jersey encourages schools to implement practices that lead to cost savings in energy, water and garbage bills, and help improve efficiency, cut waste and free up money for the classroom. Schools and districts can choose from a list of nearly 90 actions to get started, in categories such as food and nutrition; green cleaning; green design; green purchasing; healthy school environments; and student and staff wellness.

Registered schools are eligible to apply for the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Small Grants program, and certified schools gain priority access to grants. With new grant opportunities available in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Small Grants Program this year, Sustainable Jersey invites schools and districts to dream big, develop partners and join the Sustainable Jersey for Schools mailing list to get the latest news on available grants.

For more information, visit the Sustainable Jersey for Schools website at www.sustainablejerseyschools.com/.

Donna Drewes is co-director of Sustainable Jersey. Renee Haider is associate director of Sustainable Jersey.

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