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IDEA’s quest to become the healthiest school district in America
In the fertile borderlands of South Texas, agriculture is booming. The mild climate and bright sunshine offer farmers the chance to grow a wide range of crops and fresh produce year-round. However, this agricultural oasis is also home to one of Texas’ most notorious food deserts, and while many lack access to fresh produce, there is no shortage of fast food options.
Recently, the Rio Grande Valley was named one of the unhealthiest places in the country, with an alarming number of residents battling chronic diseases due to obesity and poor nutrition. To combat these statistics, IDEA launched an initiative called Healthy Kids Here (HKH) in 2014, which promotes health and wellness and offers students greater meal options including fresh produce sourced from both campus farms and local vendors.
Health aides play a vital role in each campus’ HKH operation, by working with the physical education department and cafeteria staff to keep students safe, happy, and healthy with proper diet and exercise.
Nelissa Flores, Health Aide at IDEA North Mission, says she gained an interest in health and nutrition after working at a local hospital and seeing patients who were diabetic or had cardiovascular disease because of poor eating habits.
The experience caused her to re-evaluate her own eating habits as an adult. She hopes to use the experience to help break the cycle with younger students who don’t realize that empty calories and bad nutrition is already making them feel ill.
“Students come in with stomach aches after eating spicy snacks or hot Cheetos,” says Flores. “The challenge is to try and get them to choose fresh, healthier options like bananas or apples.”
Flores says that while the campus works to educate students during the school day, many eating habits are formed at home, with students often mimicking the food choices of their parents.
“Just like students, parents need to be better informed about the foods their family consumes,” she says. “They're the ones that control the household food supply. Children will eat whatever is in the home whether it’s cookies and chips, or fruit and vegetables.”
In addition to sharing information and healthy recipes via the campus “Parent Weekly” newsletter, IDEA has also published a collection of delicious and nutritious kid-friendly recipes in the 2018 Healthy Kids Here Cookbook.
Of course, it is never too late to learn about the importance of healthy eating and proper nutrition. Flores recalls one family that stopped drinking soda and wanted more information regarding the HKH program.
“I spoke to the student’s mother and gave her information on Healthy Kids Here and showed her the types of food needed for students to function properly at school and get their metabolic system on track,” says Flores. “Nutrition prevents a student’s health from declining, because if they're eating well, they’re less prone to illness.”
Though changing the region’s culture when it comes to health and nutrition is a slow process, in the last four years alone Healthy Kids Here has already garnered IDEA several distinctions including recognition from the HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary government program that recognizes schools with high nutrition and exercise standards.
Out of approximately 4,000 schools certified through the challenge since 2004, only 101 campuses nationwide have received gold awards of distinction including IDEA Donna College Preparatory, IDEA Frontier Academy, IDEA Frontier College Preparatory, and IDEA Quest College Preparatory.
Flores says the prestigious distinction is only the beginning and serves to motivate all IDEA campuses to achieve excellence in health and nutrition for the sake of the students.
“We are training our scholars to get into the habit of eating healthy and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “We are here to give each of them the chance at a long, healthy life.”