MONTCLAIR, NJ - 13 Montclair Public Schools recently distributed guidebooks designed to assist parents in making healthy food choices for their children. The road to this achievement, was one woman's journey to give her child better choices while at school. Sarah Forrest, who was a Bradford Elementary School parent at that time, gathered together with a group of parent liasons to discuss the importance of nutrition. 

The genesis of the food guide began with a small group of health and wellness parent liaisons at Bradford Elementary School, including Sarah Forrest. A mental health professional, Forrest began her path to nutrition advocacy during her pregnancy when she felt a responsibility to choose food wisely. She recognized the importance of nutrition on cognitive well-being and general health.

Fast forward five years, to 2011, when her son started kindergarten and Forrest realized her control over his diet was diminished. Forrest and other parents began to look for ways to improve the shared food at Bradford school. With the endorsement of Principal Naomi Kirkman and under the auspices of the MPS Health and Wellness Partnership, they developed the “The Bradford School Food Guide: Options for Snacks, Parties & Events at School.” The Bradford School Food Guide has now been renamed and expanded to 13 Montclair Publkic schools.

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Rejecting the “good food vs. bad food” paradigm

After listening to other parents’ concerns and honestly appraising her own food attitudes, Forrest came to believe that completely forbidding sweet snacks didn’t make sense; the goal should be helping children learn how to make healthy choices.

“The fact is, in our society, we are bombarded by advertising for heavily processed foods that are laden with salt, fats and sugar. We felt it was unrealistic to suggest that these foods be eliminated completely,” Forrest said. Instead, their approach encourages children and parents to choose healthier foods more often. They also suggest that non-food treats (like stickers, a craft project or a physical activity) take the place of traditional sweets.

And if red light foods are being offered, parents are asked to be judicious in portion sizes. “When serving cupcakes or cookies, for example, avoid the super-sized ones for small children. The overall sugar level in the snack can be further minimized by serving water, instead of another high-sugar/high-calorie beverage like fruit juice or soda.”

Principal Kirkman said, “The food guide, along with other initiatives to promote good eating habits, is helping our students be better prepared to learn.”

A community-wide effort to encourage healthy food choices

The “Fuel for School” food guide represents a rare collaboration among Montclair’s public and community schools. Due to the support of the community-wide Eat. Play. Live…Better initiative, the guide is being distributed to all three sites of the Montclair Child Development Center, and the Montclair Pre-K Center. Printing costs were funded by Partners for Health Foundation.

“Developing and disseminating the food guide has taken an extraordinary effort,” said Joanne Aidala, director and founder, Montclair Public Schools Health and Wellness Partnership. “It is an extremely useful tool. Now it is up to families and school staff to put the tool into practice, to be willing to change long-established personal food habits. Then, working as a community, we can expect to strengthen the crucial link between health and academic success.”

Founded in 2001 by parent volunteers, the Montclair Public School Health and Wellness Partnership has worked to make health a priority in school through collaboration, coordination and communication. In addition to relationships with health and wellness providers in the community, the Partnership has created a model program that includes a parents’ network (liaisons) in all of the township’s public schools who meet regularly to share ideas and information.The food guide is the latest example of the Partnership’s success.

Additional information:

USDA, Food & Nutrition Service Smart Snacks in School