An Interview with Keba Laird, School Health Coordinator for the Clinton Public School District

 

The Clinton Public School District knows how to get kids to eat their veggies.

As Child Nutrition Supervisor for the Clinton Public School District, Keba Laird’s role is to  focus on nutrition education efforts inside Clinton Public School District classrooms and cafeterias—planning menus and engagement efforts to get kids excited to participate in their school or district’s health initiatives.

“Pretty much any and everything nutrition-related falls under my umbrella,” she said.

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Keba Laird serves as Health Coordinator and Child Nutrition Supervisor in the Clinton Public School District.

Laird also serves in the very important role as the district’s Health Coordinator for its health council, a separate role from Child Nutrition Supervisor. As Health Coordinator, she serves on the district’s health council, the health councils of each of its schools, and ensures each council’s compliance with state-set operating guidelines. Mandated by the Mississippi Legislature in 2006 for every school district, school health councils are designed to create and maintain health-focused community engagement in schools statewide, and to battle childhood obesity and improve the health of students.

For students at all grade levels in the Clinton Public School District, the influence of their school health councils has meant taste-testing and voting on healthy new recipes at lunchtime that the district may add to their official lunch menu, and having all traditionally fried foods cooked in a combi-oven instead of a deep fryer. This also means, Laird says, that students’ cafeterias are not just a place to sit down and eat, but also serve as learning laboratories where kids get to taste healthy recipes and learn about nutrition and healthy eating themselves.

The Clinton school-health councils tackle more than just healthy eating, however. With the Center for Disease Control’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model as the guiding blueprint, health initiatives at each school are age-appropriate and focus on improving students’ physical and mental wellness as well. The health councils have also made it a point to focus on the health of teachers, whose good health practices, Laird says, rub off on the students in their care every day.

“If we have healthier teachers, they’re going to be your cheerleaders and champions for the students and the cause of promoting nutrition, exercise, and stress management in the classroom,” Laird said. “Staff wellness parlays into student wellness very easily. That just really conveys a message that our students see and pick up on.”

Championed by the enthusiasm of the administration and school board, and embraced by the equally enthusiastic teachers, buy-in from the community has helped make the school health council initiatives very successful in the school district.  

“This success comes with engagement from all of our key stakeholders. That means the parents, the students, community partners, to really help us to take our wellness efforts to the next level.”

The Child Nutrition and Food Service staff in the district are a critical part of the success of healthy eating initiatives and creating a culture of health for all the students.  “They serve our children with a smile every day. They really take pride in their work,” Laird says. “They’re the ones who are on the front lines and they cultivate a relationship with the hundreds of students, many of our cashiers know these children on a first-name basis. There’s a connection there.”

The impact these programs has on these students is immense; they’re empowered to eat healthier, move more, and express themselves in safe ways. Students’ lives and health are molded in a supportive health culture every day they’re at school.

“We all have a part to play in fighting childhood obesity and supporting our children,” Laird said.

What are school health councils?

Do your school and district have operating health councils? School health councils, mandated by the state legislature in 2006, are a diverse group of community members working together to improve the health of students in their schools and districts.  For more information on School Health Councils and tips for their success, start here. Contact your district and school administration today for even more details!

 

Tips from Keba:

Bring in community stakeholders. “Each school health council has a very diverse committee that includes not just students and teachers but (other community members) like clergy and first responders. We’ve also partnered with the City of Clinton and some of them have served on our school health councils across the years. They’re able to bring in a perspective and they may be knowledge of resources that we as a school district may not be aware of.”

Be consistent. “On an annual basis, we have a strategic planning meeting. The purpose of that meeting is to look at each of the five goals, our progress that we’ve made, look also in assessing if the goals that we have prioritized earlier, if they’re still relevant, or if there is a new direction that we intend to take. Our local school board, superintendents, and building administrators—they get it. It really takes having that buy-in and that support from the top because it filters down and everybody gets it.

Engage students inside and outside of class. The Child Nutrition department of Clinton Public School District conducts regular student taste tests to determine student acceptability before new food items are placed on the school menu. Individual samples of the new food items are prepared and available in the cafeteria for students to try during the meal period. Age-appropriate surveys are distributed to students and collected before meal service ends. Next, the results are compiled and food items with 75% or higher likability among students is added to the school menu. The Child Nutrition department also conducts summer recipe taste test events where parents, students, staff, and the community are invited to participate. “We make a point to include our students in our menu selections.” 

Health and wellness can be incorporated on any budget. The Mississippi Department of Education and private organizations may have grants available to help facilitate the cost of projects and initiatives. “Those grants are pretty hefty,” Laird says.

Make fun a focus.

The health initiatives at Clinton are fun-focused and inclusive. In order to inspire students to eat more fruits and veggies, the Child Nutrition Department challenged students to log their fruit and vegetable intake for a month. These Clinton Park and Eastside Elementary classes who logged the most fruits and vegetables won a fruit and vegetable party!

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Clinton Park F&V Party Winners_091332

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Learn more about Clinton’s methods here!

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