The first time staff in the tiny rural Bethune School District in eastern Colorado tried to explain to youngsters that French fries would not count toward the veggie category on the food pyramid, they were met with blank stares.

Equally vacant stares met them when pomegranates and kiwis were introduced to a few lunch menus in the 131-student school district near the Kansas border.

Not anymore. Students are now used to logging the foods they eat on MyPyramid.gov website. Most of them don’t bat an eye at the new physical education requirements or the constant chatter among teachers about the ongoing “My Biggest Loser” contest. They’re used to no butter anywhere in sight and whole wheat lunch rolls and the fact they need three physical education credits to graduate from high school.

Today, the Colorado Department of Education announced that Bethune and five other small districts will receive $20,000 over two years from the Colorado Legacy Foundation via the Colorado Health Foundation. Founded in 2007, the Legacy Foundation is governed by an independent board of trustees that develops initiatives to support the Colorado Department of Education’s initiatives in innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st-century teaching and learning and the dissemination of best practices.

A tight budget prompted Bethune Superintendent Shila Adolf to go for the Healthy Kids Learn Better grant. The CDE, which requires all district have health and wellness plans in place, awarded $160,000 in grants to 10 small and large districts. The money will be available to districts March 5.

Adolf said she believes strongly in kids and staff staying healthy. She personally has lost 14 pounds since August. All told, the 18  “Biggest Loser” participants lost a combined 137 pounds. The system was tweaked, though, when it became clear nobody wanted the thin staffers on their teams.

Now, body mass index is calculated into a point system as well. Some of the Legacy dollars will pay for rewards such as Safeway gift cards and school spirit gear for winners. One of the goals is to reduce the district’s health insurance premiums. Teachers are encouraged to go on walks during breaks and are supplied with pedometers and water bottles. Together, they take Latin Zumba classes taught by a district teacher.

The school now gives students choices of food rather than dumping it on a plate for them. Seventy percent of the school’s children qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And 94 percent of those youth participate in the federally funded lunch program.

“(Students) are choosing fresh vegetables more often,” Adolf said. “We removed students’ ability to have seconds on the main entrée. They can only have seconds on fruits and vegetables. For a while, the kids thought the lunch ladies were so mean. But once we showed them the right serving size for their age, they found out they had been eating two to three times that amount.”

“Now, I think they’re very excited about it.”

Adolf has a personal goal to lose another 30 pounds.

This is exactly the sort of innovation the Colorado Legacy Foundation is trying to support through the $868,080 it received last summer from the Colorado Health Foundation. The one- and two-year grants are designed to improve student achievement by implementing best practices related to nutrition, physical education, health education, school-based health and workplace wellness for students and staff.

“Healthy students and academic achievement go hand in hand,” said Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “The Colorado Health Foundation’s latest health report card documents that Colorado continues to fall behind in important areas affecting children’s health.”

All 10 school districts will use the Legacy Foundation’s 2009 Best Practices Guide to assist them with their health and wellness programs. Available here, the guide is the second in a series of annual best practices published by the Colorado Legacy Foundation in collaboration with the CDE.

Grant recipients can use the money to pay for costs associated with conducting the completion of the Best Practices Guide checklist and implementing the Best Practices Guide plan including classroom education, program activities, equipment; training, staff wellness programs, policy development, school or district team meetings and stipends.

In the Boulder Valley, Interim Director of Nutrition Services Ann Cooper plans to use the money to boost the number of students who eat school-made lunches. Right now, about a third of the district’s 26,000 students participate. She’d like at least half of them to eat at school so economies of scale work in her advantage when budgeting for food purchases.

Cooper said she plans to get cooks to give samples of lunch menu items – say, chicken quesadillas – to students a day or two before they’re really on the menu so they might pick up a tray the day they’re served. Cooper said it’s great when parents pack healthy lunches but not all of them do.

“A lot of parents may not know what healthy food is. We see kids with Lunchables and things like that.”

Julie Poppen can be reached at jpoppen@frii.com.

Districts awarded $10,000 per year for two years:

Bethune School District – Nutrition, health education, physical activity and employee wellness

Campo School District RE-6 – – Nutrition and employee wellness

Durango School District 9-R – Health education and employee wellness

East Grand School District – Nutrition and employee wellness

Elizabeth C-1 School District – Health education and physical activity

Monte Vista C-8 School District – Health education, nutrition, physical activity and employee wellness

Districts receiving $10,000 for one year:

Boulder Valley School District – Nutrition

Colorado Springs School District 11 – Coordinated school health

Thompson School District – Employee wellness

Weld County School District 6 – Nutrition