Boulder’s Alicia Sanchez International School earned gold this month, achieving the second-highest ranking possible in the HealthierUS School Challenge, designed to recognize schools that meet strict criteria for promoting good nutrition and physical activity.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Columbine Elementary in Boulder won a gold medal in the HealthierUS Challenge.

This brings to 36 the number of schools in Colorado to be certified in the challenge, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Twenty-seven of them are in the Boulder Valley School District.

Nationwide, 2,862 schools have been certified. In addition to meeting strict nutrition standards, winning schools must provide students with nutrition education, physical education and opportunities for physical activity.

“It’s becoming more common, as more and more schools learn what it takes,” said David Von Behren, regional public affairs director for the USDA Food & Nutrition Service, which oversees the HealthierUS School Challenge program. “A couple of years ago, we may have only had one or two schools in Colorado, but now more and more districts are getting involved to implement changes in all the schools.”

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The 27 Boulder schools will be honored with a ceremony Tuesday morning at Columbine Elementary, one of three gold-medal schools in the district. Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in Washington, will join students and other guests at 8 a.m. for a healthy breakfast, then speak about the department’s efforts to improve the nutrition in school meals through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Credit Ann Cooper, director of food services for Boulder Valley, for much of the progress the district has made in implementing healthy changes in its school meals. She has been dogged in revamping the district’s menus to include more fresh produce, whole grains and locally-grown food, and eliminating processed, high-fat offerings.

“We’ve spent three years very specifically changing the quality of the food we serve,” Cooper said. “We were already on that road when we decided to start applying for the HealthierUS awards. It’s not that we feel getting the awards is more important, but we’ve worked hard to change the quality of our foods so we could apply and get the awards.”

Gold, silver and bronze award winners

In Boulder Valley, three schools – Sanchez, Columbine and Emerald Elementary – have earned gold status, while one, University Hill Elementary, earned silver. The rest have earned bronze.

The schools receive plaques and banners as well as monetary prizes: $500 for bronze awards, $1,000 for silver, $1,500 for gold and $2,000 for gold awards of distinction.

It’s not that the meals are better or more nutritionally sound or the physical activity more demanding at the gold medal schools, Cooper said. In fact, the food and physical activity is the same at all the schools. The difference is that more students eat the healthy school-provided lunch at the gold medal schools than at the others. Often, family income drives a child’s participation in the school lunch program, with poorer students more likely to partake.

Students dined on colorful produce-laden meals at Columbine Elementary

“Our gold-medal schools are the three schools in the district with the highest number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches,” Cooper said.

While participation rates vary from school to school and grade to grade, an average of 40 percent of Boulder’s elementary students eat a school-provided lunch. At Emerald, 58 percent do. At Columbine, 60 percent do. And at Sanchez, 65 percent do.

School lunch numbers climb

Still, the numbers of youngsters choosing to eat the healthier school lunches in Boulder is up across the board, and that pleases Cooper immensely. They’re up 7 percent over last year, and up 6.2 percent over the 2008-09 school year, the year Cooper came to the district and began shaking things up.

For awhile, participation rates went in the opposite direction, as students rejected some of the healthy changes Cooper instituted. The loss of a la carte sales left a big hole in the district’s food budget.

“It took us into our third year to really see the positive impact of the food on the kids,” Cooper said.

Besides the Boulder schools, other Colorado schools recognized in the HealthierUS challenge include B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland and Kunsberg School at National Jewish Health, both of which received Gold Awards of Distinction, the highest possible rating; six Aurora schools, all of which won bronze: Boston K-8, Clyde Miller, Laredo, Montview, Paris and Park Lane elementaries; and High Point Academy, a charter school in Aurora.

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