Addressing Mental Health in our Schools

images-4A friend just brought this article to my attention. It is a really important read about new approaches to identifying and helping students with mental health issues by offering in school support. It also takes a look at influencing factors in students’ lives and what we as parents and educators can do to tackle these issues with a holistic approach to mental well-being.

http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/05/22/how-schools-can-help-nurture-students-mental-health/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20150523

My Love Affair with Coke

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** Someone just mentioned this article to me and I had to share. It talks about how nutritionists are plugging coke as a healthy snack choice!

http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2015/03/16/coke-a-healthy-snack-how-company-gets-its-message-out

It’s really too bad that sometimes the words “fight” and “wellness” show up synonymously in dialogue surrounding healthy kids. As purveyors of positive, we as advocates for children’s health are here to plant the seeds of positivity, embrace what’s good and right for our kids, and grow the support base for our cause. This of course assumes that there are no big corporate monsters getting in our way by claiming their stake and offering cash strapped districts money in exchange for branding rights. These corporations end up creating battlefields out of OUR schools.

Up until 2 years ago our district’s monster was Coke. We happily accepted A LOT of money from them and the district viewed it as a real win-win situation. Those funds went towards yearbook costs and prom and were a really useful source of revenue. I’m not sure if any of that money went towards health and wellness for our kids but it would be interesting to find out. Imagine! Coke in all its sugary glory promoting healthy lifestyles! A match made in heaven!

Let Me Rethink That

The thing is that some of us wellness advocates didn’t feel quite right about this relationship. We started questioning the support of this company and their presence in our schools in general. Here we were as a nation that had recently adopted the push towards mandated wellness policies for our schools, and we had started to require districts to make healthy changes to foods being offered in the cafeteria, yet we allowed our kids to grab sugary beverages during the school day.

Our district had an answer to the wellness advocate rumblings. Put the machines on lock down. The machines were only allowed visiting rights with the kids at certain times of the day. The thinking was less access would lead to less consumption of sugary beverages.Well, that still didn’t sit quite right with us. How were we supposed to be teaching our kids about healthy lifestyles when our district didn’t even support it?

The Monster is Slain, or is it?

So, after a very long and arduous battle with administrators (how would we replace that lost revenue?), we prevailed. How did we do it? We didn’t let up. We constantly brought it up in committee nutrition meetings, at board meetings, and in the community. It helped too that Coke really didn’t offer many products that met the new federal guidelines and they realized that the few products they could put in the machines would drastically reduce their revenue. However, around this time I found out that Coke had begun to work on a new product, a healthy fortified milk, and I wondered if this would be their opportunity to reinsert themselves in our schools.

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The Solution- Healthy Vending

We as advocates had had enough. We didn’t want to have to revisit the battlefield year after year as big corporations launched more and more “healthy products” that met the federal guidelines. And so the race was on. How do we fill the void of hungry stomachs and the soon to be dried up stream of lost revenue? How do we get those empty Coke machines out of our schools once and for all?

So we started to research. We found that healthy and vending could be synonymous in the form of the offerings from companies such as BuffaloStrive (www.buffalostrive.com), Venducation (www.venducation.com), and H.U.M.A.N.(www.healthyvending.com) These companies had access to all sorts of healthy options that met the federal guidelines! Dried apple chips with no added ingredients, unsalted pistachios, naturally seasoned rice chips, Kind bars, apple sauce squeezes, waters, unsweetened tea and naturally flavored fruit beverages, they offered it all! One company even offered a Farm to School program where fresh items like carrots and apples or hummus and whole-wheat chips could be offered. How cool is that!!

 Vending as Education

My first meeting with a district purchasing agent was met with real opposition. It began like this, “I hate vending and I think there is no place for it in our schools”. I kicked the wellness coordinator that had accompanied me to the meeting under the table. I proceeded to look him in the eye and explain what the new face of vending meant to me. It meant filling a void with whole, healthy items that anyone would find acceptable for a kid. It meant an opportunity to replace a dried up revenue stream. It also meant the opportunity to create an educational component where the kids would run the machines like a small business. They would assign school groups (student council, yearbook club, gardening club, etc.) and create the roles of CEO, CFO, book keeper, marketing person, etc. in an effort to learn what it’s like to act as entrepreneurs and run their own business. It took about 10 minutes to win the purchasing agent over and now he serves on our task force to create the RFP to identify the company that will serve our district.

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What We’re Doing Now

We currently have a pilot program set up for healthy vending because we were fortunate enough to find a local company that was just starting out in this arena. They agreed to put machines in two district schools to test the waters. We selected schools with different study body make up: One is a criteria based school with a highly engaged student population, the other is a school that struggles with attendance, test scores, and lack of resources.

So far our results have been impressive and have beaten the expectations of many who thought the kids wouldn’t be interested in healthy products in vending machines. At the criteria based school there is a line that forms each day at the machine and items regularly sell out. The company decided to put 3 machines in that school alone to keep up with demand. The other school had a slower start but robust nonetheless. We tweaked their product offerings to give them healthy but more brand identifiable products and this change made a difference.

Under the pilot the company is running the machines but once we launch district wide we will switch to the business model plan. We are considering so many fantastic opportunities as we move forward. One is to partner with private companies and community organizations and get them to sponsor the machines at any given school. The revenue that comes out of partnerships such as these could go towards funding current and future site based wellness initiatives, and also showcase these businesses as leaders in the movement towards whole child, whole school, whole community.

On a quick side note, I asked the purchasing agent how much revenue was generated with Coke in a month. It wasn’t a bad number but at more than double the amount for the same period of time, I think I’d prefer to stick with our healthy vending machines.

About Leelah

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Yesterday was the most glorious sunny Sunday in Buffalo NY. The temp hit 30 after about 2 months of bone chilling weather and I walked outside with my daughter feeling happy to be alive. I had just written a blog entry about cyber bullying and my daughter and I were discussing the topic when I told her I wanted to share a story. It was about a girl named Leelah.

Leelah died recently after throwing herself in front of a truck on a lonely, dark stretch of road not far from her house. She did not feel happy to be alive. Leelah had been born, Josh Acorn, a boy, and since the age of 4 she had constantly struggled with gender identity issues.  Her biggest wish in life was to transition to a girl and be accepted as Leelah, a kind, artistic, and intelligent young woman.

Sadly, Leelah’s parents did not support her wish to transition. “We don’t support that, religiously,” is what her mother stated after her daughter was already dead. In an interview she continuously referred to Leelah as her son. No acceptance.

Initially it appears that Leelah found  support amongst her peers. In a school environment where often times it seems  kids are ridiculed for being different as opposed to celebrated for their uniqueness, this is to be commended. But the support waned as her parents cut her off from school, social media, and her friends, and Leelah became more and more isolated.

Had Leelah’s parents not cut her off from everything, would she have had access to a supportive LGBT group at her school, in her community? What resources were available to her? If you go to the school’s web site: (http://www.kingslocal.net/Schools/KHS/Pages/default.aspx), it appears they have a lot of different clubs: everything from ski, yearbook, and philanthropy clubs to film, anime, and self defense clubs. Do they have an LGBT club? Does your child’s school have one? I’d like to think that in the face of this tragedy they’ve begun an LGBT club at Leelah’s school. My daughter’s school has a gay straight alliance and they offer resources for transgender students as well. There is a high level of student involvement within this group.

We need to be doing a better job in our schools and our communities to support these kids. When they come out and live as the person they want to be they need to be fully supported and their commitment to diversity needs to be applauded.

http://www.glyswny.org

http://www.lgbtcenters.org

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Leelah-Alcorn/752262548182134