In Union City, our mission is to educate all students to their fullest potential, enabling them to become productive, responsible, compassionate, adaptable and healthy citizens. To us, “healthy” means providing our students with nutritious and delicious meals that nourish their minds and bodies. This past year was an exciting one for the Union City Public Schools, as our student body, faculty and parents saw first-hand the benefits of specific initiatives and programs we implemented focused on childhood nutrition and education. Through our partnership with ChartwellsK12, our food service provider, we have seen not only an increased interest in the health and wellness of our students, but an uptick in the actual number of students taking an active role in their diets and making healthy eating choices.

As the vice principal of Union City High School, Edwin E. H. Marinez, said, “the quality and variety of food here at UCHS is compared to many college campus cafeterias.”

Expanding Free Meals to All Students The launch of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), in Union City Schools has helped level the playing field for all students by reducing the perceived stigma associated with identification as a free- or reduced-lunch student. The program allows high-poverty local educational agencies and schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students without requiring families to complete an annual household application.

Beginning last year, all students in the district receive free breakfast and lunch meals, providing enhanced access to the healthy, great-tasting meals we offer every day. Amplified by the fresh and local produce students receive through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant Program and the after-school snack and supper programs, CEP ensures that all students are well-nourished through delicious and nutritious meals and snacks all day long.

The introduction of CEP led to an increase in students taking part in the school meal program. To ensure students not only received their meals but also had enough time to eat, we introduced kiosks to the Union City High School, and implemented seven unique station concepts that appeal to students’ tastes and food preferences. Union City Schools’ menus are developed alongside Chartwells chefs and dietitians who leverage culinary trends, local flavors and dishes, and student feedback to deliver a menu that is customized to the unique preferences of Union City students. This approach allows the team to create menus that students enjoy.

Good nutrition should not stop at the final dismissal bell of the school year. Therefore, the Union City Board of Education has also participated in the Summer Food Program, offering breakfast and lunch to all students up to 18 years of age. In the development of a partnership between the city of Union City, Chartwells K12, and the Union City Board of Education, 15 sites that provide summer recreation, remedial and enrichment education programs, school-based youth services and 21st Century Learning programs offer free breakfast and lunch.

Imagine the financial strain on a household where children who receive free breakfast, lunch, and after-school dinner/snack during the school year must provide meals for the children during the summer. Our families can only stretch a dollar so far. By providing healthy, delicious meals during summer recess, our students receive the same great dining options as during the school year. 

A School Menu App That Provides Nutrition Transparency One of the things we’re most excited about is the use of the Nutrislice app in our schools. Nutrislice is a mobile app that helps parents, students and, perhaps most importantly, school nurses plan out healthy and nutritious meals. Ninety-four percent of our students qualify for free meals (well above the national average of 53 percent), making it especially important that the meal they receive at school fulfills their daily nutritional requirements. The Nutrislice app helps empower our students and their parents in making smart menu choices, ensuring they receive a healthy, well-balanced meal every school day.

One enthused parent noted, “I love the ability to discuss food choices with my daughter in the morning before she starts her day. As a parent, I love the transparency of the nutritional information at the click of a button.”

Additionally, more than 95 percent of our student body is Hispanic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in two Hispanic men and women are expected to develop diabetes in their lifetime. Our school nurses are utilizing the app to make sure the nutritional choices the students are making align with their dietary needs.

Blossoming Garden Programs Engage Students in Their Own Nutrition An exciting thing literally growing in popularity among our schools is the garden program. Through this initiative, our students have the opportunity to grow their own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Not only does this provide an extra layer of learning around food nutrition, but a school garden pilot program coordinated by Chartwells and partner identified that 71 percent of garden coordinators saw an increase in students who participated in school gardening activities, selecting more fruits and vegetables in the café.

Through our partnership with Chartwells K12, we will be receiving funding over the next two years to expand this initiative. Currently, just one of our schools has a garden but we’re excited to have the opportunity to add an additional three in the near future.

Fresh Food from the Farmers’ Market We’ve created free, seasonal farmers’ markets for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. In total, 12 schools participated in the farmers’ markets. There is a myriad of benefits to having a farmers’ market. First, students learn about what foods grow during which seasons – squash and apples in the fall, corn and tomatoes in the summer, etc. – making them more in-tune with their environment. Next, allowing kids to “shop” for fruits and veggies gives them the opportunity to try new vegetables that may not normally be part of their diet. We’ve found that kids are more likely to want to try new food when they have the opportunity to pick it out themselves. Finally, students are excited to bring the food home and share what they’ve learned with their families and even more excited to have their grocery picks become part of the family dinner.

We’ve seen the impact of our increased focus on student health and wellness throughout our school district. Not only are students more engaged in their own personal nutrition, but we’ve had an increase in the number of school meals sold. Between breakfast and lunch, we sold 267,000 more meals in the 2015-2016 school year than the 2014-2015 school year. With student, parent and faculty satisfaction so high, we expect these numbers to increase as we head into the upcoming school year.

More Healthy Food Choices Ahead  The collaboration between the Union City Board of Education and its food service provider is alive and well and continues to explore new service options. On the horizon is a food truck that provides mobility in delivery options. A business plan written by the high school DECA students, along with food prepared served by the culinary arts and hospitality students, is the next exciting program.

We look forward to continuing to make a lifelong impact on our students by building nourishing eating habits that will serve them well – now and as they grow into healthy adults.

Anthony N. Dragona, Ed.D.,  is school business administrator for the Union City Board of Education. He can be reached at [email protected].