“It’s my belief, and the district’s belief, that it’s important to teach students healthy eating habits while they’re in school,” said Margaret Sullivan, the Saratoga Springs school lunch program director. Sullivan oversees the self-sustaining lunch program for all of the Saratoga Springs City School District, and for the last several years has made it a priority to provide students healthy options in a unique an innovative lunch program. “At first it was a bit of a struggle,” said Sullivan, who also noted the growing childhood obesity epidemic in the country. “At first kids were resistant to new things that they may not have known before. But now that we’ve had these really great options for a few years, I think we’ve really gained some traction.”
Sullivan has implemented a variety of innovative partnerships and programs to bring healthy and great tasting options to the schools’ lunch menus, including growing fresh vegetables in the schools’ own gardens and the Farm-to-School initiative with Saratoga’s local farmers’ market.
“We allow the farmers’ market to use the facilities inside the Division St. Elementary School during the winter,” said Sullivan, “and in exchange they provide us with up to $10,000 in fresh produce for our salad bar and lunch ingredients. When we put the produce out in the cafeteria, we have labels above everything that tells students which produce is farm fresh, and which farms the produce comes from.”
Another key partnership that is vital to the program’s success has been the involvement of the student body, which came together in 2009 to form the Nutrition Advisory Club. “Another girl named Heyley Leonbruno and I founded the club two years ago,” said Kyle Janeczek, the club’s secretary. “We were able to recruit a few other members last year who really kind of kicked it off.”
Together, Janeczek, the Nutrition Advisory Club, Sullivan and co-advisor Beth Morris work to find great tasting healthy meals to add to the menu, holding demonstrations for younger students, taste testing sessions and free sample giveaways when something new comes along.
“Last year we had a chef from the Gideon Putnam, Brian Sterner, come down to the kitchen and put on a demonstration while he made a black bean corn salad, which was really good,” said Janeczek. “Periodically they’ll have it down in the cafeteria now, so I constantly buy that. It’s very healthy and it’s very good.”
To spread the word, high school students in the Nutrition Advisory Club visit the younger students at the middle school, encouraging them to try some of the healthier and perhaps more foreign sounding options.
“It was really funny, because when we went to the sixth graders they were all really excited because we were the kids from the high school,” said Jaffa Olson, the club’s treasurer. “I remember the sixth grade ate the black bean salad no matter what we called it. With the eighth graders, we started calling it a black bean salad and they were all like, eh, no way. But then we started calling it a southwest mix and they all took it and ate it.” With the help of peer encouragement and student feedback, healthy habits are becoming the norm at Saratoga Springs. No longer do students pick up hot dogs, French fries and cheese sauce – instead it’s fresh salad from the salad bar, fresh potatoes from Sheldon Farms and the recently taste-tested, student-approved Chobani yogurt.
“I know I eat from the salad bar every day,” said Olson, who hopes to enter nursing school after she graduates.
Janeczek, who has his sights set on the professional culinary world, hopes that healthy initiatives like the one at his school will catch on elsewhere, including other parts of the community.
“Culinary has always been interesting to me,” said Janeczek. “We’re always looking for new things here that will be healthy, but I also want it to taste really good so you’re not loosing the flavor.”
Currently the Nutrition Advisory Club is trying to raise money for the Franklin Community Center. “We’re buying a lot of canned food for them,” said Olson. To help with the drive, residents are encouraged to donate canned goods or funds directly to the Franklin Community Center at 10 Franklin St. in Saratoga Springs. Visit www.franklincommunitycenter.org for more donation information.