By: Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA
Behind every successful school meal program is a leader with a mission to support the long-term success and health of children. Leaders understand the importance of teaching, inspiring and encouraging healthy eating patterns. The impact of school nutrition goes beyond the cafeteria, and Let’s Eat Healthy nutrition champions, Alhambra Unified School District Executive Director of Food and Nutrition Services Vivien Watts and Elk Grove Unified School District Nutrition Specialist Anne Gaffney grasp this concept. As partners to Dairy Council of California’s Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative, we are proud of their commitment to advancing school nutrition.
As leaders in their field, Watts and Gaffney continue to share their expertise with colleagues and future school nutrition professionals even as they approach their final school year before retirement. They know that empowering healthy eating involves strategies beyond the lunchroom. While cafeterias introduce children to new foods and teach about balanced meals, providing different touch points to reinforce nutrition helps children make lifelong healthy eating choices.
Under Watts' leadership, Alhambra Unified School District implemented new ways to increase school meal participation. The district introduced grab-and-go meals, second chance breakfast and multiple service lines. It also diversified the menu with input from the broader school community to sample menu items, which allowed the district to stay relevant to food trends and the cultural needs of students.
Throughout the year, Alhambra Unified School District provides opportunities for nutrition education through campaigns like National Milk Day, which includes classroom and cafeteria activities and resources to get students excited to learn more about nutrition.
According to Watts, “We get to make a difference. Our work directly impacts our students every school day.” She continued, saying she’s most proud of “being able to recognize different talents in team members and letting them do what they are good at and enjoy their own accomplishments.”
For Gaffney of Elk Grove Unified School District, transforming school meals and expanding the reach and supports of nutrition services is a goal that kept her focused and committed. Under Gaffney’s leadership, a districtwide nutrition program called Shaping Health as Partners in Education (SHAPE) was established. This program provides structure for integrating nutrition education in the classroom by offering elementary teachers yearly professional in-service, nutrition field trips, harvest of the month tastings and credible, science-based nutrition curriculum from Dairy Council of California.
Elk Grove Unified School District Director of Food and Nutrition Services Michelle Drake had this to say: “Anne has been a true innovator in school nutrition, building a sustainable nutrition education program. Thirty years ago, she began her journey in school nutrition and had a desire to teach students about the importance of consuming fruits and vegetables. She led the team to build variety in the menu, with eating all the colors of the rainbow at the heart of her message.”
Anne built a strong base of SHAPE teachers who understood the importance of nutrition education at the classroom level, according to Drake, who said, “Anne’s commitment to students’ health outcomes was focused on the message of moderation and healthy eating can be kid friendly. Anne’s message has reached thousands of students.”
Both Watts and Gaffney serve as inspirations for bringing nutrition to life both inside and outside the cafeteria. While there are numerous examples of how they have impacted school nutrition, the two leave behind a legacy—that school nutrition is more than just a meal.
Heartfelt thanks go to Watts and Gaffney for their dedicated efforts to nourish the health and well-being of children!
Originally published in Poppy Seeds Magazine, the original journal for the California child nutrition profession, for the winter 2024 issue.
Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA
Sonia Fernandez-Arana, MA
Sonia is the Let’s Eat Healthy Program Manager and leads the activation and advancement of the Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative.
Dairy Council of California and our Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative extend support to educators and school foodservice professionals all year!
Working together spreads the message of nutrition security and the value of milk and dairy foods in healthy eating patterns across the life span.