Hold the Cupcakes, Please

A student at the John M. Marshall Elementary School helped to promote the school's new healthy food and wellness guidelines last month. The guidelines will be rolled out in September. Russell Morgan

Despite President Trump’s efforts to roll back many of the former first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy eating rules for schools, Beth Doyle, the principal of the John M. Marshall Elementary School, believes schools need to do more, not less, to help students develop healthy attitudes toward food and lifestyle.

Ms. Doyle is hoping that parents will attend her presentation on Friday, June 9, at 9:15 a.m., as it will unveil the school’s new health and wellness policies as of September. Before setting the guidelines in stone, she wants to receive as much feedback from residents as possible and wants parents to be involved in these decisions so they can be deliberate about championing healthy living at home as well as school.

The idea for a lifestyle overhaul germinated during the Shadow a Student Challenge back in February. Ms. Doyle and Russell Morgan, the school’s assistant principal, each spent a day following a student in the hope that by seeing the school through students’ eyes they might identify ways to improve the John Marshall experience.

One startling discovery that surfaced that day was the amount of sugar being ingested by her young charges on a daily basis. She also made note of the endless food-related celebrations such as birthdays and Valentine’s Day and Halloween parties that took place in classrooms, as well as the long stretches during the day when kids remained sedentary, with no outlet for physical activity.

Ms. Doyle decided that her job as an educator should include being a role model for better health. “School shouldn’t just be about learning English or math,” she said, “it should also be about encouraging good habits.”

She and Mr. Morgan brainstormed with staff members. They asked for feedback from residents and conducted a food survey of fourth and fifth graders and their parents. The school set up a wellness committee, and the PTA wholeheartedly signed on.

In a document to school parents, the committee’s goals were defined as “looking for ways to improve several aspects of wellness at J.M.M.E.S., including nutrition education for students, parents, and faculty; increasing opportunities for physical activity; reducing junk food in school, and connecting the school garden to wellness efforts.”

Ms. Doyle next contacted the Wellness Foundation in Sag Harbor, and with the help of Michele Sacconaghi, its president and chief executive officer, she came up with a plan. “The first thing Michele helped me do was write a set of guidelines, because that’s the greatest equalizer. Here’s what you can do, here’s what you cannot,” Ms. Doyle explained.

She foresees that the biggest hurdle in the new guidelines will involve cupcakes. “Kids will absolutely still be celebrating their birthdays in the classroom, but for kindergarten through second grade, these will no longer involve food. In third to fifth grades, students will be asked to bring healthy food items only,” she said.

She knows there will be disappointment among the youngsters and even parents, but she pointed out that food-focused birthday celebrations were already problematic, causing inequalities in some classrooms. She told of how a child brought in cupcakes for everyone recently, while another child also celebrating a birthday could not afford to do so.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “This will help level the field.”

Ms. Doyle stressed the fact that birthdays at school will remain fun and joyful occasions, but she would like to teach children to celebrate in more meaningful ways than devouring a cupcake. One recent example of alternative celebrations involved every child in a classroom writing something positive about the birthday boy and then placing all the notes in a box, which was given to him as a present.

“That’s something this student will keep for the rest of his life,” she said. “A cupcake is gone in a minute.”

Increased physical activity during the day will also be implemented throughout the elementary school come September — more outdoor time, Ms. Doyle promised, as well as more work in the backyard garden. The school will continue its practice with “brain breaks,” in which students get a 10 to 15-minute break in their classrooms to move around, stretch, meditate, and hit the reset button.

Ms. Doyle’s desire to see that healthy living is put into practice comes from a personal place. Her father died of complications of diabetes when he was 53. “Who knows, if he had been exposed to healthy living habits from an early age and exercised more regularly, maybe he would have lived longer.”