PORTLAND — If there’s a message from this week’s HealthierUS Schools awards, it’s that hard work pays off.
Back in January, schools from around southern Maine submitted lengthy applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including photocopies of nutrition labels from every food product they use, copies of every recipe on the school lunch menu, and proof that the school’s policies do not use food as a reward and physical activity as a punishment.
On Thursday, the 35 Maine schools that met the bar will receive the USDA’s HeathierUS Schools Challenge awards.
Kevin Concannon, the undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, will be at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine to honor the schools for their efforts to reduce childhood obesity by improving lunch menus and increasing physical activity.
The winners include Falmouth’s Plummer Motz and Lunt elementary schools; Freeport’s Mast Landing and Morse Street schools; Portland’s East End, Hall, Reiche, Longfellow, Nathan Clifford, Peaks Island, Presumpscot and Riverton elementary schools; South Portland’s Brown, Dyer, Kaler, Skillin and Small elementary schools; Yarmouth’s Rowe and Yarmouth elementary schools; North Yarmouth’s Wilson and North Yarmouth Memorial schools; and Scarborough’s Blue Point, Eight Corners, Pleasant Hill and Wentworth Intermediate schools.
Schools in Westbrook and the Lakes Region also won awards.
Only about 1 percent of schools nationally qualify as HealthierUS Schools.
Heidi Kessler, school nutrition coordinator at Portland nonprofit Let’s Go!, began pulling school nutrition directors together in 2007 to help encourage them to choose healthier lunch options for their students.
“We started to push them to reduce French fries, and increase vegetables and fruit,” Kessler said. The group decided it would be good to have a goal and chose the USDA program as something to work toward.
The program requires schools to provide a different vegetable every day of the week, and at least three of those must be dark green or orange. Schools must offer at least one serving of dried beans and must have at least three whole-grain foods per week. Only skim and 1 percent milk is allowed, although sweetened chocolate and strawberry milks are still OK.
Kessler said changes to the menus came much easier than changes to school policies about rewards.
“You can’t keep kids in for recess if they didn’t do their homework,” she said.
Another challenge was convincing school groups not to undermine the program by selling junk foods for fundraisers.
In Freeport, the schools used to offer cupcakes to students on their birthdays. Now, the students get a coupon for time in the activity room, which boasts a dance video game, rowing machine, jump ropes, Hula Hoops and stability balls.
“Anyone in the school has the ability to give a student a coupon as a reward,” Kessler said.
She said the Let’s Go! model could be utilized by other school groups hoping to make a difference.
“It’s been really special to have (school nutrition) directors sitting around the table for five years,” she said. “Some of this stuff is really technical, and we’re able to help them sort through it.”