As part of our Cafeteria Stories series, Allison Slade, Founder and Executive Director of the Namaste Charter School in Chicago, shares thoughts on why good nutrition is an integral component of a child’s education. She credits the academic achievements of Namaste’s students not only to the academic structure itself, but also to the fresh, healthy meals that are a pillar of the school’s structure. Thank you, Allison, for sharing your story.
Guest Blog By: Allison Slade, Founder and Executive Director of Namaste Charter School
I’ve worn many hats in many schools—I have been a Teach for America Corps member, a Kindergarten teacher, a mentor, a curriculum designer, a literacy specialist, and now at Namaste Charter School, a Founder and Executive Director. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of reasons why schools should or should not make their students’ health a priority on campus.
When I was a teacher, I watched my students come to school with orange fingers from their cheesy snack food breakfast. By 10:00 a.m., my students were crashing; they couldn’t focus and they certainly couldn’t reach their highest potential, which is every teacher’s mission.
Ten years ago, I founded Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s Southwest side with the goal of combining rigorous academics with a commitment to health and wellness in one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. Ninety percent of our students are Latino or African American, and more than 85 percent are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals through the federal government.
When I started, people said, “But kids won’t eat that!” about the healthy food options I proposed serving. I’m here to share that when you teach kids why eating fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and whole grains is the best thing for their bodies, they really buy in. And when kids are burning energy with recess and brain breaks throughout the day, they have a healthy appetite when they sit down for lunch in the cafeteria—especially for tasty, freshly-prepared meals.
We also teach our students about the seasonality of food—and we conserve our food budget in the process by serving foods that are readily accessible through local vendors. It’s an important lesson for kids to know where their food comes from. They look forward to fresh corn at the start of the school year, and blueberries at its end.
Serving healthy meals at school is about much more than the bottom line. It’s about teaching kids how to develop lifelong healthy habits that will ultimately help them reach their greatest potential. We know what we’re doing at Namaste is working for our kids. Chicago Public Schools maps where our students would have gone to school if they were not at a charter school and uses a weighted average of the scores at those schools to compare with our students’ scores. Every year since we opened, we have outperformed our comparison school in reading, math, and science by over 10 percentage points!
The healthy meals we serve our students are fueling strong bodies and minds that will be able to transfer what they learn at school into lifelong healthy behaviors.
Editor’s Note: Namaste Charter School is receiving the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s National Healthy Schools Gold Award for the 2013-2014 school year.