Twinsburg -- For their promotion of physical activity and a balanced diet, the Twinsburg City School District has been issued a bronze award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.
A part of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge rewards efforts by school administrators to promote healthy eating and exercise habits among students.
The five schools in the Twinsburg City School district are among only 40 schools in Ohio to be awarded for the challenge by the USDA with either a bronze, silver or gold award. The award is based partially on student participation in the school food program.
"The goal is helping to combat childhood obesity," said food services coordinator for the district Mark Bindus. "In Twinsburg, my hope is that we can do the best for our kids if we sell them a [whole] lunch. We could make a lot more money if we focused on selling a la carte, [but] that's not really our goal. Our goal is to be self-supporting, but to do so through serving healthy lunches. It's been a challenge, we go back and try to see what we can improve to keep food costs down."
Bindus said his district may have fallen short of the gold level award due to low student participation in the school lunch program.
"As far as what we do nutritionally and what we do fitness-wise, we are on gold-par level, it's just the participation level that keeps us from meeting that standard," Bindus said.
Bindus said he and his staff have attempted to encourage good nutrition in Twinsburg by preparing meals from scratch using natural ingredients. The problem many schools face, he said, is that they focus on a la carte menus, which are often more profitable but less balanced and healthy.
Bindus said crafting meals from scratch allows for flexibility and control over nutritional value.
"The focus of most schools at this point has been heat and serve," Bindus said. "In Twinsburg, our focus has been if we make it from scratch, we control a lot of the cost, we control the quality and we control the nutrition of it."
One successful strategy for encouraging healthier diets among students involved clever marketing of a somewhat unpopular product, Bindus said.
"The goal was to get rid of a lot of refined sugars," Bindus said. "We tried to make the fruits a dessert. Strawberries with a little dollop of whipped cream. We do sliced bananas with a little bit of chocolate syrup. We do apples with a little bit of caramel dip. We're trying to make it so it's readily available, easy to eat. Our kids have done real well with it."
Even the pizza offered at Twinsburg schools is built as a healthy option, with a whole-wheat crust, part skim milk cheese and sauce with no added preservatives.
Superintendent Kathryn Powers said the award is a reflection of a commitment to combating the serious issue of childhood obesity.
"This is a significant recognition for the district," Powers said. "Schools across the country are concerned about childhood obesity and the importance of teaching children strategies and information that has to do with healthy lifestyles and healthy living. This is recognition that ... our school district is interested in making sure that healthy lifestyles is a priority for everyone."
Bindus added that the award would not have been possible without his food service staff working closely with the district's physical education departments and wellness personnel.
"For me, I'm all about team effort," Bindus said. "What I've done in Twinsburg is impossible without my staff. My staff is just phenomenal, working with me and trying to do the best that they can for the kids of Twinsburg."