Culture of Nutrition: Elk Grove Unified

Community Health All-Star

Teaching Food Groups + Healthy Eating:

Anne Gaffney ensures nutrition is part of the culture at Elk Grove Unified School District


Anne Gaffney has created a culture of nutrition and health at Elk Grove Unified School District As the fifth largest school district in California, Elk Grove Unified has an exceptionally deep focus on healthy eating for children, especially for elementary students. From a made-from-scratch central kitchen, to teacher trainings, nutrition lesson plans, food literacy field trips and more, nutrition is part of the culture and curriculum at Elk Grove Unified School District.
Elk Grove’s investment in healthy eating for children spans more than 20 years, thanks to the Shaping Health as Partners in Education (SHAPE) program from the California Department of Education’s Nutrition Services Division. With a start from a SHAPE grant in 1993, Food and Nutrition Services has developed and grown a comprehensive nutrition education program, and Anne Gaffney, R.D. was hired as the Nutrition Specialist to lead the implementation of the program and partner with teachers district wide. 

Elk Grove students learn nutrition sequentially along with core subjects like math and language artsOver time, Gaffney created a comprehensive training and incentive program for teachers to ensure nutrition is part of the culture at Elk Grove Unified School District. SHAPE Teachers participate in voluntary, unpaid nutrition training at the start of each school year. Gaffney provides education, resources and encouragement that supports teaching food groups through nutrition lesson plans and includes an update on nutrition science.

“USDA’s MyPlate and Dairy Council of CA’s grade specific nutrition lesson plans are taught district-wide for K-6th grade students, and the SHAPE Trainings empower teachers to incorporate nutrition into classroom education in a comprehensive way,” explained Gaffney. “So in return for making the time to teach healthy eating for children, SHAPE Teachers receive fresh produce monthly for student taste testing and explorations as part of the Harvest of the Month program and nutrition-themed field trips.”

It’s the community based nutrition-themed field trips that Gaffney’s developed over time that really set Elk Grove Unified School District’s program apart from others. 1st and 3rd grade SHAPE teachers bring their classes to the district’s central kitchen where meals are made from scratch every day. Parents are invited along to tour the kitchen, enjoy the taste testing and nutrition lesson. 

Second grade SHAPE teachers get to take their students on a similar tour of their individual school’s kitchen and do a taste testing activity. 

Grocery store field trips introduce students to healthy shopping and eating habitsFourth graders take a field trip to a local certified farmers’ market where they learn about seasonal produce and where the food is grown across California. 

Fifth graders take a MyPlate themed grocery store field trip where they learn more about a balanced diet and lessons on healthy shopping. 

Finally, SHAPE teachers from the sixth grade earn a class field trip to Davis Ranch, where students and their parents learn about farming and actually get a chance to harvest produce. Students take home about 20 pounds of produce a piece, making nutrition education as delicious as it is healthy.

“It (information) sticks so much better when students have the opportunity to participate in their own learning,” says Michelle Drake, Food and Nutrition Services Director for Elk Grove Unified School District. “If we want to make healthy eaters, we have to get them involved. That’s where the nutrition education- and Anne’s program- is so important.”

By leading these trainings and developing opportunities to showcase the central kitchen and local businesses, the Elk Grove Unified School District foodservice program has emerged as a source of pride for the district and community. By inviting parents on the field trips, they’re able to make connections between the nutrition lesson plans in the classroom and healthy eating for children in the school cafeteria.

Teachers volunteer their time to attend SHAPE trainings on teaching nutrition in the classroom “We’re able to dispel some of the skepticism about the school meals,” said Gaffney. “Parents and teachers alike are surprised and very pleased to see the care that goes into their child’s school meals.”

With over 500 SHAPE teachers participating in the District’s comprehensive nutrition education program, there’s a good chance that students can experience multiple field trips and benefit from a sequential learning experience. 

Through the SHAPE program and district-wide nutrition lesson plans, students learn about healthy eating and food literacy right along with the rest of their education. If a student does not have a SHAPE teacher each year, they’re still increasing nutrition knowledge with Dairy Council of CA and USDA’s MyPlate nutrition curricula through 6th grade. 

In addition to classroom education, Elk Grove Unified School District has cultivated a culture of health and nutrition with additional experiential learning activities. Over the years, district schools have been involved with Fuel Up to Play 60, walk to school events, the Healthier US School Challenge- all through the leadership of the Food and Nutrition Service Department in general and Gaffney in particular. 

Jr Chefs at Elk Grove learn knife skills that become life skills through Food and Nutrition Services“I look at it as a marketing of the Food Service Department to the students, the teachers, the parents and the community,” said Drake. “When we teach children to be healthy, they’re more willing to do so if they know the reasons why, and it’s easier for students to make the right choices in the lunchroom. We need to continue to work at the state and federal level to increase this funding and we appreciate working with our partners to provide resources that ensure kids can continue to be engaged in their learning.”

Elk Grove’s culture of nutrition continues to thrive through Local School Wellness Policy Committees and Smarter Lunchrooms Movement trainings at the individual school level. In 2008, Food and Nutrition Services added another nutrition education opportunity for students -cooking classes for 6th graders.  The program is called Junior Chef. 

In 17 of the district’s low resource schools, Food and Nutrition conducts the Jr Chef hands-on culinary lessons. At various times throughout the year, students get the opportunity to prepare three different recipes. In addition to basic food literacy, the Junior Chef’s program teaches basic knife skills, how to follow a recipe, use a skillet and more. The best part of all? Participants eat the fruits of their labor.

Over the past 20 years Anne has helped over 1 million Elk Grove Unified students build the necessary skills and confidence needed to make healthy eating easier for life and is why she is our Community Healthy All Star. 

What is a Community Health All-Star?

Community Health All-Stars are individuals or organizations that are making a difference in their communities by creating a great impact through nutrition education. Learn more

Integrating a Culture of Nutrition with Common Core State Standards

Teachers want students to make better food choices, but limited instructional time is a commonly-cited barrier to teaching food groups and nutrition lessons in the classroom. 

At Elk Grove Unified School District, the established culture of nutrition helped teachers embrace the new standards and nutrition lesson plans. Dairy Council of CA helped with a training at SHAPE workshops to show teachers that nutrition embodies the experiential learning that essential in Common Core. 

A survey of Elk Grove teachers revealed that 73 percent of teachers observe their students making healthier food choices in the school cafeteria after nutrition lessons. In the same survey, 75 percent of respondents stated they are more likely to encourage students to eat school breakfast or lunch because of their participation in the SHAPE program. 

“Nutrition and Common Core State Standards go hand in hand. We actually had an increase in teachers wanting to participate in the SHAPE program after adopting Common Core,” said Drake. “As more and more people want to eat healthy in general, they see the benefits of what healthy eating does for children and their behavior in the classroom.  If they teachers think it’s (nutrition) an important part of the curriculum and kids are more engaged in the classroom, that’s all the buy in we need.”