Assistant Superintendents Sid Haro and Emilio Handall co-hosted the 2014 School Wellness Summit.

Assistant Superintendents Sid Haro and Emilio Handall co-hosted the 2014 School Wellness Summit.

by Dean Zatkowsky

As the fog burned away to reveal a beautiful fall morning at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang, California, Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative Director Kathleen de Chadenèdes welcomed a hundred local teachers, principals, superintendents, food service directors, parents – and one congresswoman – to the first annual School Wellness Summit.

The Summit, initiated by the Orfalea Foundation and supported by CenCal Health and the Santa Barbara County Education Office, is a central feature of Orfalea’s plan to ensure sustainability of its programs and progress after the foundation sunsets at the end of 2015.

Explaining the desire to institutionalize best practices, de Chadenèdes cited food systems scholar Jan Poppendieck’s observation that “we provide professional development opportunities to many people in the school environment, but not food service – the ones who could actually kill your children.”

It was a full house of engaged stakeholders at the Alisal Guest Ranch Sycamore Room.

It was a full house of engaged stakeholders at the Alisal Guest Ranch Sycamore Room, as Handall and Haro addressed the crowd.

Based on the School Food Initiative’s involvement in Culinary Boot Camp, Food Literacy Programs (such as Harvest of the Month, Food Day, and Garden-Based Learning), and District Wellness Policies and Committees, de Chadenèdes expressed confidence that the initiative has accomplished its mission to empower districts to provide nourishing, cooked-from-scratch food. However, “Food service cannot do it alone – they need help from the rest of the school community. That’s why this summit includes administrators, teachers, community members, business officers, and parents – to create a culture of health and wellness in each district.”

“The School Wellness Summit is a chance for those whose paths don’t naturally intersect to share innovations in health and wellness on campus – for kids, staff, and families.” – Kathleen de Chadenèdes

Emilio Handall and Sid Haro, Assistant Superintendents at Santa Barbara Unified School District and Lompoc Unified School District respectively, cohosted the event and provided some opening thoughts on the work of creating and sustaining a campus culture of health and wellness.

Bethany Markee (Solvang Elementary School), Kathy English (Buellton Unified School District), and Kathleen de Chadenedes (Orfalea Foundation)

Bethany Markee (Solvang Elementary School), Kathy English (Buellton Unified School District), and Kathleen de Chadenedes (Orfalea Foundation)

Handall has witnessed a pervasive misunderstanding of the role of health and wellness during his twenty years in education. “I don’t believe students can learn well if their basic needs are not met.”  Yet working in schools opened his eyes to how many kids were not eating: “It blew me away to realize that here we are in the twenty-first century and my students don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” As a result, he’s been working closely with District Food Service Manager Nancy Weiss to develop systems to make sure kids get what they need. “Our students are with us from early morning, and some of them are with us until 5:00 or 6:00 PM. We’re giving them every meal they get on weekdays, so we have a lot of control in shaping their relationship to nutrition.”

Emphasizing the need for an holistic approach, Handall offered that educators must recognize students as a long-term investment; that students influence their families and friends, and that connecting science to health and wellness integrates curriculum with personal experience for more impactful learning. “As a public institution, we need to embrace that we are more than an academic institution.”

Mitch Torina (Santa Barbara Unified) chats with Emilio Handall between panels.

Mitch Torina (Santa Barbara Unified) chats with Emilio Handall between panels.

Eschewing a microphone and depending instead on his “playground voice,” Haro explained that he learned from personal experience the dangers of poor eating and exercise habits, and wants to ensure future generations don’t face the health problems he has witnessed and experienced. “As a principal I had the excuse that I was busy. Well, kids have a lot of excuses too. But we have to raise kid and educator support of health and wellness to a level of intentionality. It comes from doing.” Haro praised the efforts of Lompoc Superintendent Trevor McDonald, who has declared campus health and wellness a moral imperative. “Leadership matters,” says Haro. “Health and wellness cannot be event-based, but must be integrated into everything we do.”

Engaging school principals has been a cornerstone of success in the Lompoc District. If health and wellness initiatives are presented as extra responsibilities, “Principals say ‘thank you very much, but I have to do my real work now.’” So Haro and McDonald have worked with Child Nutrition Services Manager Kathy Bertelsen to attend Principal Forums and present solutions that remove obstacles to implementation. With turnkey programs like Harvest of the Month, principals receive assistance, not extra work.

Just before lunch, Congresswoman Lois Capps addressed the group. Her comments will be covered in Part 3 of this series.

Just before lunch, Congresswoman Lois Capps addressed the group. Her comments will be covered in Part 3 of this series.

Handall sent a chill through the crowd when he invoked the “preschool to prison” trajectory faced by low-income students as a reason for educators to step up on health and wellness. “We know that proper nutrition and exercise are part of the broad range of services essential to learning. Frankly, I want to spend more time doing the work rather than emphasizing why it is important.”

Concluding the opening session, Haro acknowledged the importance of the diverse stakeholders in the room: “We cannot separate health and wellness from academic success, so we need to break down silos and find a way to balance competing interests. It has to be intentional, because it will not happen by chance. I don’t want to do this alone.”

Based on the thunderous applause and visible attendee engagement I witnessed  throughout the day, he won’t have to do it alone.

In Part 2, we’ll review the first panel discussion of the day, on Wellness Goals/Policies/Committees, featuring a teacher, a food service director, a parent, an assistant superintendent, and a District Human Resources Coordinator.

Dean Zatkowsky is Communications Manager at the Orfalea Foundation.