Rethinking School Nutrition: National Health Foundation’s Health Academy Increases Access to Healthy Options Through Innovative Youth-Led Projects

The school cafeteria has been the subject of plenty of derision over the years given such negative perceptions of the food served and limited resources to meet the demands of a diverse student body. In the Los AngelesUnified School District (LAUSD), home to 640,000 students in more than 1,187 schools, the subject of school nutrition is a high priority. It is a priority shared by National Health Foundation’s innovative “Health Academy,” a youth-led, community research and advocacy program.

Since December 2013, teams of students have been researching and identifying challenges to accessing and consuming healthy foods and beverages, as well as obstacles for physical activity in their South Los Angeles community. One of their focus areas has been school nutrition. For many LAUSD students, the meals they consume at school are their primary meals of the day, and in some cases, their healthiest meals.

One of the Health Academy’s youth-led teams, Legion of Health, has been addressing the issue of healthy lunches and snacks at Jefferson High School and the students have made important headway since the program’s inception. Last year, students conducted menu sampling in an effort to introduce tastier and healthier menu options. According to LAUSD Food Service Director Laura Benavides, some of the new choices would be available as early as this April. She noted that given the sheer size of the district, changes take time, but she extended an invitation to the team to participate in the LAUSD Menu Committee meeting next year where critical decisions on menu development would be made.

One of the key findings of student research has been that with only 30 minutes for lunch and the increased wait times, many students are avoiding the cafeteria and are relying on alternative venues that promote sugary snacks, such as the student store and vending machines. Research has also shown that consuming a healthy meal takes more time, time that most students simply will not take. In an effort to have more students eat lunch in the cafeteria, the district is taking a serious look at reducing wait times. The Health Academy students, for their part, took a practical approach to solving the lunchtime crunch: a cafeteria makeover. By reorganizing the layout of the cafeteria, they were able to create a more efficient flow of traffic, thereby reducing wait times. This improvement has helped increase school lunch participation and the number of students eating at the cafeteria every day.

An LAUSD program called Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC), implemented in fall 2014, was widely touted as one way to ensure students were starting their day with a healthy meal and the nutrition needed to get through the morning. An unintended consequence of the program has been an increase in food waste. Last year, the Health Academy team tackled the food waste issue, as well as their limited access to healthy food, by creating the Health Academy Mini Farm Stand. Students redirected the fresh fruit left over from the BIC program to individual baskets in several test classrooms. Students in need of a snack could help themselves to a piece of fruit from the basket in their classrooms. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Teachers were pleased, students consumed more fruit, and food waste from BIC was significantly reduced. The project was expanded school-wide in February of this year. There are plans to expand the project to more schools in the district, but the students have set their goals even higher: They are hoping LAUSD will adopt the concept district-wide!

These students have also been instrumental in addressing access to water in Jefferson High School by working to install one of the first Hydration Stations in the district. The filtered water station was unveiled Fall 2015 and is designed for students to refill their water bottles as opposed to reaching for sugar-sweetened beverages in the vending machines. Sugar-sweetened beverages alone are responsible for a large number of unhealthy calories that lead to obesity and the associated health risks such as diabetes. The Health Academy students championed the Hydration Station effort after their research revealed that students wanted access to more fresh water and to consume less sugary drinks.

The Health Academy students have, through their research, project design, and implementation, created lasting changes in one of the largest school districts in the nation. Moreover, they have been exposed to real-world learning that has included meetings with school officials, community stakeholders, and elected officials, all in an effort to realize lasting, equitable policy change with respect to the health and wellbeing of their South Los Angeles community. These young community advocates have already left a mark on the health of their community, a mark that will hopefully inspire others to do the same.