NEWTON — Kids’ cooking classes, a farmers market for income-eligible families and a sensory garden are a few of the wellness amenities and activities that students at Merriam Avenue Elementary School have benefited from or will see soon.
The Merriam Avenue School is part of one of many school districts in Sussex County that participates in the North Jersey Health Collaborative, a working group of 17 agencies and organizations part of the “It’s Elementary, It’s Health” movement. The effort combats what Deborah Fisher, nurse for the Sussex-Wantage Regional School District who spearheaded the initiative, refers to as the “child health crisis.”
The network of school nurses and administrators, healthcare organizations and in-store dietitians have teamed up and meet regularly to brainstorm solutions to improve the wellness of the county’s children through healthful activities, nutritional education and fitness programs.
One of those agencies working with Merriam Avenue School is SNAP-Ed from Zufall Health, a community health center that offers medical care on a sliding scale. The SNAP-Ed program or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, offers the opportunity for income-constrained families to be provided an education about healthful food choices on a small budget.
Each school within the Newton Public School District has its own Wellness Committee, said Superintendent Dr. G. Kennedy Greene, with Newton High School’s nurse, Jill Aquino, the district’s representative for the Health Collaborative. The Wellness Committees within the Merriam and Halsted Street Middle Schools work with the SNAP-Ed program; Jennifer Salt a representative of Zufall said the high school does not participate with SNAP-Ed, as it is ineligible as a regional school.
“There’s a lot being done on the school level,” Greene said of the initiatives. “We’ve (the school district) been supportive over many years with engaging students in healthy activities.”
Salt said the Merriam Wellness Committee and fourth graders in the Pride Ambassadors student council group and Earth Keepers Recycling Club, collaborated to discuss cafeteria menu options with Sodexo, the food service provider. Greene said students were particularly concerned about environmental harm from the use of disposable trays and plastic utensils. In response, Greene said, the district purchased a dishwasher that went into use in January 2020, with a quick turnaround time to effectively wash reusable trays and utensils.
Cooking classes, farmers markets and other activities
One of the SNAP-Ed programs offered at the Merriam Avenue School, Salt said, is “Cooking Matters for Kids,” which teaches children lessons about food preparation. The cooking class started in November 2018 through the Choose 2 Connect or C2C after-school program. The C2C program, according to its website, is free and open for students in both the Merriam and Halsted Street Middle Schools, between third through eighth grades; and is supported by federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Within the 2018-2019 school year, more than 40 children participated in the program, Salt said. During the classes, children not only prepare a meal, they receive a nutritious snack and dinner while participating in the program; and the seventh- and eighth-graders offer feedback on the types of nutritious snacks they would like to eat.
Kids are exposed to hands-on experiences to help them understand more about the foods that they may encounter at fast food restaurants. In one nutritional lesson, students passed around a puffy roll to help them visualize how large a fast food burger would be when stacked between the rolls, with meat, cheese, bacon and other toppings.
“These classes encourage students to develop a love of cooking and the skills to make healthy food choices wherever they go,” Salt said.
In March of 2019, the Merriam Avenue School hosted its first farmers market for income-qualified families, which are now held the third Thursday of each month while school is in session. Salt said the fresh produce and eggs provided were through the efforts of the Sussex County Hunger Coalition, which helped to rescue produce from Sussex County grocery stores on the brink of being discarded, but still acceptable for local food pantries and safe houses to offer to those in need. The non-profit Foodshed Alliance donates eggs and produce that it receives through its LocalShare program from area farmers, Salt said. As part of the team effort, the Hunger Coalition delivers the items to Chester “Chet” Wisnewski and Scott Predmore, custodians in the district, who bring the items to the market. The C2C students help to distribute the food to parents as they pick up their children. SNAP-Ed also offers nutritional information and education to parents during the markets.
Both Merriam and Halsted additionally host Girls on the Run teams, a 501(c)(3) organization that Salt said inspires the participants to build self-respect, make healthy choices and participate in interactive lessons and running games to prepare for the final public 5K among area teams in Sparta.
Upcoming wellness projects
Merriam Avenue has recently been awarded a grant, Salt said, through the New Jersey Healthy Communities Network, to create a sensory garden in the school’s interior courtyard. The two-year grant, for a total of $20,000, with $10,000 awarded per year, will enable the school to create a garden that stimulates the senses of smell, touch, taste, sight and sound. The school is partnering with a pediatrician to help layout age and needs-appropriate items for children, a master gardener for landscape help and others to make it a mindful sanctuary for students and staff, Salt said. Additionally on Tuesday mornings, yoga classes will be held in the garden in favorable weather.
In working with the Foodshed Alliance, Salt said the district has applied for a farm-to-school planning grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and if funding is received, will create a position within the district for a farm-to-school coordinator, who will create a sustainable plan for farm-to-school programming.
County statistics on child wellness
Fisher said after the collaborative was formed to improve child wellness and began investigating the statistics, within the 27 of 31 county schools, the body mass index rating of 6,867 kindergarten through sixth grade students during the 2016-17 school year was documented that 2,143 or 34 percent of the children were classified as “overweight.” Of overweight students, 15.2 percent or 1,042 were sub-categorized as “obese;” and 10.4 percent or 713 as “morbidly obese.” These numbers reflect that 25 percent of the students in the county who were classified as “obese” and “morbidly obese,” was higher than the national average, per CDC standards.
Jennifer Jean Miller can also be reached by phone at: 973-383-1230; on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/JMillerNJH and on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JMillerNJH.