To the Editor:
To the thousands of Rhode Island friends and partners of Kids First, thank you for your work with me and with the dedicated staff members of Kids First during the past 15 years. Together (and I mean TOGETHER), we have transformed the nutrition environments in all of our public schools, a feat most thought impossible (or unimportant) when we started our work in 1997. In 15 years of service to Rhode Island children, Kids First spearheaded major nutrition changes in our greatest and most influential public institution for children – our schools.
Given Michelle Obama’s recent announcement of new USDA nutrition requirements for school meals, which mirror those that Rhode Island implemented nearly three years ago, we can all feel incredibly innovative for having figured our own way – ahead of the USDA – through developing, testing and cost-effectively implementing superior nutrition standards for Rhode Island’s school children.
Fifteen years ago, when I visited schools across R.I., I saw vending machines filled with sugary beverages and junk food lining the halls and locker rooms of many middle and high schools. High schools sometimes had over 100 fundraisers centered around selling junk food in a single 180-day school year. Elementary students were offered tater tots, chicken nuggets and ice cream for lunch, birthday sweets in the afternoon and candy as a reward for good work – all in a single school day. There was very little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables and none were grown in R.I. All grains were highly processed and high in sugar and sodium. This was no one’s fault – it had simply become the norm for schools and, unfortunately, this is still the norm for many schools across America.
Today, Rhode Islanders can be proud as we walk through our schools. Together, we have accomplished much to celebrate:
• The formation of school district Wellness Committees that develop and implement locally generated solutions for improving the nutritional well-being and physical education of Rhode Island’s students. Due to the early success of Wellness Committees, Rhode Islanders chose to require them by passing a law in 2005.
• In 2003, the collaborative development of voluntary nutrition criteria for all foods sold and offered outside of the school lunch program during the school day. When the Healthier Foods and Beverages in Schools Laws were then passed in 2006 and 2007, we could more effectively ask industry to stop bringing junk food and sugary beverages to our schools.
• Offering our children more fruits and vegetables, including a wide variety grown right here in R.I. Kids First worked with the R.I. Department of Education to develop and test improved criteria for school breakfast and lunch, and as a result, students were exposed to the taste of whole grains and more fresh-prepared, scratch-cooked foods with lower sodium than the processed counterparts. We achieved enough statewide support that the Board of Regents passed the RI Nutrition Requirements (RINR) in 2009.
• Implementation of a robust Farm to School program with 100 percent of R.I. districts now serving up locally grown foods along with local foods education and tasting opportunities in every cafeteria across the state.
The time has come for us to celebrate our success in improving school food environments and to finish out our work by the end of this school year. Kids First began with a clear mission to help R.I. schools become places where our children could learn and practice healthy eating every day. In the years since we started our work, Rhode Island communities and stakeholders have taken ownership of the changes and, in some cases, continued to expand our initial work. While everyone will not agree with me, I believe that Kids First is no longer needed to lead the charge. We have achieved our initial mission. It is time for us to step aside so that others can dedicate themselves to the important work of sustaining our improvements and expanding them to childcare and other institutions.
Please, I ask that we never revert back to what I saw in schools 15 years ago. We need to now look to other R.I. institutions, especially health care-related institutions, to follow the lead of R.I. schools by becoming places where citizens can learn about and practice healthful eating by offering and promoting fresh, tasty (and locally grown) foods every day!
The Kids First team and I remain available to R.I. schools and state agencies until the end of the school year (June 30). Please feel free to contact us for assistance in these next five months. Stay tuned to our website (www.kidsfirstri.org), as we share more details of winding down our operations, seeding other organizations with our highly dedicated and qualified staff members and finding homes for programs, like the RI Farm to School program, that will live on elsewhere. If you have any thoughts about how we might best complete and/or transition our work to others, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Thank you for being with me on this fantastic 15-year journey of R.I. school food transformation. To every school nurse, chef, superintendent, food service team member, farmer, principal, parent, teacher, student and community partner that helped bring us to this point, all of us at Kids First celebrate your involvement, your energy and your devotion to helping our mission succeed. Don’t stop now – continue to make Rhode Island a model for the rest of the nation!
Founding Executive Director