Promoting a Culture of Health and Wellness in our Schools
There’s something fascinating about the idea that a relatively simple building can have a significant impact upon the people of the town and surrounding area. The Warrenton Community Center is one such place. It is the home of many community outreach programs including FRESH, Fauquier Reaches for Excellence in School Health. From this humble and historic home, the FRESH program team works to create a culture of health and wellness for students, staff, and the community. The program, fully funded by a grant from the PATH Foundation focuses on creating positive and healthy changes in our classrooms, cafeterias, after-school settings, and throughout the community with the ultimate goal of helping students and families enjoy healthier lives.
In an interview with Pam Pulver, FRESH Supervisor, she shared her passion for the program, “More than anything, we’re trying to promote a culture of wellness and fitness in the county. The key is doing it through education through the schools, through clubs, and through outreach in the community. We do anything we can do to get people interested.” Ms. Pulver is an advocate for increasing students’ knowledge of healthy choices and the importance of fitness. Her background as a schoolteacher is apparent in her speech and her desire to see students succeed and lead healthy lives. She likes to put an emphasis on the importance of a project like this, and how it needs to grow organically from the community’s desire to make healthy changes.
Jessica Lesefka, FRESH Program Coordinator, while quieter, equally supports the program’s goals and objectives. She spoke about all the activities being offered through FRESH’s efforts highlighting FRESH clubs. “This pillar of the program offers free clubs to students. This way, any child is able to experience a health centered extracurricular, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.” Ms. Lesefka elaborated further, “This year FRESH hired a Volunteer and Club Coordinator, Kristin Weinzapfel, who works with school personnel to organize clubs throughout all 20 Fauquier schools and ensure they meet FRESH guidelines.” Two goals of the clubs include providing students with opportunities to learn more about fitness, cooking, and gardening and also to increase students’ desire to continue these healthy activities throughout their lifetime. Examples of FRESH funded clubs include running, sports, cooking, and gardening.
Natalie Ortiz, FRESH Chef and a professional chef by trade, puts a lot of effort into her portion of the program: food and nutrition. Ms. Ortiz began as a personal chef and caterer, classically trained at culinary school until FRESH hired her to run the nutrition portion of their project. The program that Ms. Ortiz put together is specifically designed to focus on Virginia’s crops, which include zucchini, cantaloupe, apples, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. Ms. Ortiz visits the schools in the county to teach the cafeteria workers how to prepare these foods. She’s very active in trying to get the children more exposure to foods in their unprocessed states. She also develops student approved recipes for the school nutrition staff to increase fruit and vegetable intake among students. “It’s a lot of work to cook from scratch as well as time consuming to processes whole, fresh produce. With increased cooking from fresh vs. canned or frozen, cafeteria staff have to rearrange their production schedule. For so many years across the nation, school food has been a standard ‘heat and serve’ model. It’s also sometimes tricky to get these fruits and veggies into a state that the kids will enjoy, especially if they’re picky eaters.” Ortiz went on to say that despite any snags she may run into during day-to-day management of the project, she enjoys her work very much: “When I hear the students say that they like something that they didn’t think they would like in our lunch time tastings, or hearing parents excited that their child is excited to eat healthy – that’s really encouraging for me.”
Ms. Ortiz isn’t the only member of the group concerned with nutrition. Members of the Master Gardeners community are also affiliated with the program, and they come in to occasionally speak about gardening and how to properly cultivate homegrown vegetables. These Master Gardeners oftentimes volunteer with FRESH’s taste testing labs and teach about fruits and vegetables to interested students.
Ms. Pulver is particularly proud of the FRESH Fitness Integration Team Specialists (FITS) who work with teachers to add movement to the instruction of core subjects. The experience serves to keep students active and engaged in the classroom, reinforcing the lessons learned by getting kids more physically active. Rather than pull new people from across the county or from outside the schools to come in and teach about nutrition, wellness, and fitness, FRESH instead trains educators that are already working in our public school system to incorporate fitness and nutrition into their lesson plans for the day. “Sometimes this could be something as small as getting the kids to perform jumping jacks or pushups to answer a math question…we’ve found that it gets the children moving during the school day and they also enjoy it,” said Ms. Pulver. The standard of learning is the same with the added stimulation of physical activity which aids in learning and a game for a bit of fun. Fauquier County FITS include Joseph Royston (JR), Tracy Riedel, Susan Payne, and Ashley Osburn.
While most of the efforts have been put into elementary school, middle school appearances have also begun in schools like Warrenton Middle School. Not only that, but there are also Adaptive Physical Education efforts put into place to assist disabled students by Maya Sivels, a FITS specializing in Adaptive Physical Education.
All across the county, FRESH is broadening its reach to include everyone – a little bit at a time. The FRESH team invests so much time and effort into this program for the community that it’s reminiscent of a gardener planting seeds for the future harvest. All we have to do is wait for those seeds to take root.