By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Bridget O’Brien-Wood, food service director for the Buffalo Public Schools, has spent part of the last few weeks at two different seminars that focus on how to feed kids healthier foods and get them more exercise as a way to help them bolster their brain power.
One of the featured speakers during those events has been registered dietitian Dayle Hayes, the subject of today’s WNY Refresh What are you eating? column.
Hayes might live in Billings, Mont., but her advocacy of better school fitness and nutrition has resonated across the country, including in Western New York.
She is a particular proponent of students getting a healthy breakfast, particularly in economically stressed school districts like ours in Buffalo.
Hayes, president of Nutrition for the Future, is championing a pilot program to bring Greek yogurt into schools in New York State, Tennessee, Arizona and Idaho. She hopes it will serve as a model for the nation.
The Buffalo school district is not part of the pilot program, because there was no room in the nutrition budget, “but we tried it on our own,” O’Brien-Wood said.
“We’ got samples of Chobani and tried it at three high schools – International Prep, City Honors and Olmsted 156 – and all of the students loved it. We did tell them it was Greek yogurt and we served it in parfaits or smoothies.”
The USDA is currently considering a request to count a 4-ounce serving of Greek yogurt as a double serving of protein, which would bring it into affordability in Buffalo and many other districts, O’Brien-Wood said.
This would help support growing Greek manufacturing operations in Upstate New York.
O’Brien-Wood said she would like to see it on the menu for breakfast and lunch in Buffalo schools.
Meanwhile, the district is using regular yogurt from Upstate Farms in its Breakfast in the Classroom program, and it has been popular, too, the food director said. The fruit yogurt is all natural and contains no fructose corn syrup.
Meanwhile, the district continues to grapple with a grievance by the teachers’ union involving the classroom breakfast program. Some teachers have found it messy, as well as a burden on instruction time.
Union teachers and district administrators are trying to smooth the wrinkles out of the program, O’Brien-Wood said.
“A lot of the people in the school buildings do understand that connection of making the brain work better with physical activity and good nutrition,” she said.
O’Brien-Wood, who called Hayes “a no-nonsense, practical, real common sense person," expressed hope that the impasse can be resolved. The main reason: more poor Buffalo school children are eating breakfast – 24,000 of them, compared to 16,000 before the classroom breakfast program began a couple of years ago.
Teachers have voiced similar concerns in other districts, Hayes said, but she hopes districts across the country can see the big picture – and examine low-income districts that are making the program work.
“We know from the research that breakfast improves performance in class,” Hayes said. “It improves both behavior as well as academics, and math scores is one of the things breakfast seems to impact most.
“I’m not unaware of the challenges (breakfast) presents,” she said, “however the challenges are worth the results.”
Recently passed changes in the federal food stamp, or SNAP, program mean “families who are at risk, children who are food insecure, are going to be relying even more on meals at school,” Hayes said, “so it’s really the time to sit down at the table and work together to figure out how we can make sure that kids have the fuel they need to do their best in school.
“I think if we’ve got something that’s basically no cost to the district, which improves kids’ health and academic performance, it’s something that we’ve got to find a way to make work for kids.”