An award-winning Holstein cow named Rainbow visited West New York’s Public School No. 3 on Oct. 25 as part of the town’s ongoing efforts to encourage healthy eating in its public schools. Rainbow and her caretaker, dairy farmer Phyllis Semanchik from Great Meadows, N.J., spent time with fourth and fifth grade students. LaChell Miller, a dietician and nutritionist, talked about the benefits of a calcium rich diet.
Students, faculty, and staff listened to Semanchik talk about life on a dairy farm and explain the process by which Rainbow produces up to 12 gallons of milk per day, which is then pasteurized and sold throughout New Jersey. Students chuckled when Semanchik revealed that Rainbow, who weighs 1,700 pounds, produces about 80 pounds of waste each day.
“Does she have black skin with white spots, or white skin with black spots?” asked one student, to which Simanchick explained that under Rainbow’s black and white coat of fur, her skin was actually a golden brown color.
After the presentation, fifth grader Alex Zheng said, “I learned that it only takes five minutes to milk a cow, and that when they’re nervous they drool a lot.”
“We’re infusing nutrition and health into the curriculum, but doing it in a very natural way.” -Sal Valenza
“What we’ve been focusing on is what we call a ‘cultural wellness.’ We want to make sure that students know that they need to eat right, they need to take care of their bodies and minds, and that they need to make healthy choices outside of school as well,” said Valenza. “Nutrition education is a big part of this.”
Rainbow and Semanchik’s visit was only the latest program coordinated by Valenza and Gray that could be described as slightly outside the box. Since 2011, the pair has lured other visitors to speak with students about nutrition, including former Pres. Bill Clinton, TV chef Rachael Ray, and former New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer.
In conjunction with Nu Way Concessionaires, the Kearny-based food service company under contract with the school district, Gray has formulated balanced breakfast and lunch menus with items such as vegetable chili in a whole wheat bread bowl, triple berry French toast, and BBQ beef tips with vegetable fried rice. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk accompany nearly every meal students are served.
The menu, however, only makes up for half of the strategy, said Gray.
“It’s about more than just telling [students] that what they’re eating is healthy. When we add a new item to the menu we talk to them about it and tell them why it’s an important contribution to their diet,” she said.
Gray, known to the students as Chef Kim, spends time in classes in order to explain to students the different nutrients they gain from each item on the menu.
“She helps explain stuff about healthy food and how to make it,” said Alex.
Valenza, meanwhile, focuses on ways that the food services curriculum can tie into student’s standard classes. Nearly all of West New York’s public schools now have working gardens, where biology classes have conducted soil tests and butterfly observations. If the district secures a grant it has applied for, the paths around the gardens will be covered in geometric mats designed by math students learning about Fibonacci sequences.
“We’re infusing nutrition and health into the curriculum, but doing it in a very natural way,” Valenza said. “I think it’s important that [students] don’t see that there’s a divide between what they’re doing in their normal classes and what they’re doing with us. We want it to be a natural transition so that they see all of these things happening as one.”
Gray credits the program’s success to West New York’s school board, who she says fully support her sometimes unusual requests.
“I went down there and said ‘Hey, I want to bring a cow to one of the schools.’ They didn’t flinch. Other people might think I’m crazy, but they’re always cool with it,” she said.
Superintendent of Schools John Fauta was on hand for Rainbow’s arrival at the school, and said that West New York’s food services could serve as an example throughout New Jersey.
“Sal and Kim go above and beyond in what they do for this school district,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in student’s test scores and a decrease in visits to the nurse. A nutritious diet is very important for a student.”
Valenza said he thought New Jersey school districts have greatly improved their food services in recent years.
“New Jersey has recently had a spike in their breakfast participation,” he said, “and has been working with the federal regulations to make sure the kids are getting more fresh fruits and vegetables through partnerships with the Department of Agriculture and various advocacy groups.”
West New York’s school district began adopting nutrition-based initiatives six years ago when it formed a partnership with the Alliance for Healthier Generations, ensuring that it could focus on nutrition, physical fitness, and food education simultaneously.
“I think that that’s where we are somewhat differentiated, we’ve had a bit of a head start,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, students enjoy Gray’s meals and understand the importance of her message as well.
“I like that there’s milk in school,” said Alex. “I drink it every day.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org