First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA hosted a reception on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday to honor the participants in the HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC). In March, the First Lady promised the special event, which welcomed close to 1,000 nutrition directors, cafeteria professionals, and principals, as she encouraged schools to work toward the goal of doubling the number of HUSSC-certified schools within 1 year. The original goal of 1,250 schools was met in August, and as of September, 1,631 schools have been certified, according to the USDA.
A cornerstone of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity, the USDA-led challenge recognizes elementary, middle, and high schools that create healthier environments for students by offering nutritious food and drink choices, providing nutrition education, and increasing opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day. (Search: How do I keep my kids fit?) Since the inception of the voluntary certification program in 2004, awards have been given to schools in 44 states. For a full list of winners, visit fns.usda.gov.
Guests at Monday’s event enjoyed cooking demonstrations from White House chefs and music from Navy and Marine bands. Honorees also mingled with the Obamas’ personal trainer Cornell McClellan, members of the Let’s Move! team, and representatives from President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, including gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes.
While the First Lady may be the face behind the movement to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in America, the nation’s educators are the unsung heroes, she said in a keynote speech during Monday’s reception: “So much of what we’ve accomplished these past couple of years, so many of the victories that we’ve won for our kids have happened because of you,” she told her guests.
“Because you all mobilized and organized, we passed historic legislation here in Washington to improve and provide more nutritious school meals to more of our children. We’re helping install salad bars in more than 800 schools, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to hundreds of thousands of kids across this country,” Obama continued.
“With Michele Obama interacting directly with us, it was a high-profile experience for schools that have succeeded in taking the HealthierUS School Challenge, and a carrot to the other 99% of eligible schools that could take the challenge,” said Jill Jayne, RD, also known as the “rock star nutritionist.” Jayne hosts the Jump with Jill Show in Community Unit School District 300 in Carpentersville, IL, where 17 elementary schools have received HUSSC certification. Jayne has performed 22 times in the district and has also produced three YouTube videos that promoted the HUSSC.
Jayne, who began working in the nutrition field about 10 years ago, said the event was culminating for her: “[When I started], we weren't allowed to use the word ‘obesity’ for kids,” she recalls. In contrast, Monday’s celebration kicked off with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack emphasizing the issue of childhood obesity and the challenges it presents to future generations.
Today, a third of kids are obese and we face a higher prevalence of diabetes and other chronic diseases that result from obesity. Eventually, this may pose a challenge to workplace productivity and economic security, said Vilsack. It also raises questions as to whether or not we can sustain an all-volunteer military when many young people do not meet the physical requirements necessary to join the armed forces, he said.
Monday’s celebration also served to inspire more schools to accept the HUSSC and to encourage members of certified schools to become better spokespeople for the initiative, said Vilsack. He encourages schools to share what they know and have learned with other districts, help neighboring schools meet challenge criteria, provide guidance and expertise to state lawmakers, and share their stories with USDA’s Team Nutrition website.