For P.S. X811, the reality is that many students and staff members are managing health conditions ranging in severity that could be improved with dietary changes. The majority of students at P.S. X811 are considered high-risk because they rely on family members and/or guardians to provide for their dietary needs and many have mental and physical disabilities. In addition to the personal health challenges, there are also environmental challenges, where fast food establishments and bodegas are the main source for food and groceries but offer limited amounts of healthy options.
Sandy Helms, career development and occupational studies teacher, and Paula Lucas, administrative assistant to the principal at P.S. X811 in the South Bronx are leading the charge to impact their school through one small change; dropping sugary beverages and drinking more water. Their commitment to health is what led them to become one of the newest Healthy Beverage Zone partners.
Through the school garden, school officials were able to open a community farm stand where Helms and Lucas met leaders from the Bronx Neighborhood Health Action Centers (BNHAC). BNHAC representatives saw great potential in P.S. X811 based on their efforts to improve the health of their students and the community. After learning more about Bronx-wide initiative, the Healthy Beverage Zone (HBZ) and consulting with administration, the decision to come on board as a partner seemed like a no-brainer.
“As part of our curriculum, we were already teaching the students about healthy eating and what it meant to be predisposed to chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease,” said Helms. “Incorporating education about the health effects of sugary beverages was only going to further the impact we make on positive health outcomes in our community.”
One of the first changes Helms and Lucas advocated for was removing sugary beverages from the school vending machines and filling them with healthy beverages like water and seltzer. They persuaded school administration to make the change by arguing that sugary beverages might be affecting their colleagues’ health and by eliminating sugary beverages from the vending machines, it might improve employee absenteeism. The next step was working with the beverage vendors to swap out the beverages.
“We explained to the beverage companies that we needed healthier choices and let them know that we were now HBZ partners,” said Lucas.
“We want people to see that we are serious,” said Helms. “That means tying the HBZ into to our day-to-day routines at school including internal communications with staff and what we teach our students.”
It took the beverage companies months to finally come in to make the beverage swaps but eventually all the vending machines at PS X811 were filled with healthy beverages.
P.S. X811 is a special education school with several programs that serve students with a wide spectrum of physical and cognitive disabilities. The school curriculum offers students the opportunity to learn through real-world experiences and partnerships such as the Bronx HBZ, in addition to encouraging them to conduct research on the implications of sugary beverages on health.
In regards to staff, there have been mixed responses, mostly due to the lack of access to sugary beverages at the school.
“Once our colleagues begin to understand how the HBZ effects the school community as a whole; I think they will come around and realize that they really don’t need the sugary drinks,” said Helms.
“We are extremely excited about the HBZ and the changes we are seeing in our school and in our personal lives,” said Lucas. “We’ve made incredible progress and we are seeing the positive impact this small change is having on our students.”
As part of their efforts to further HBZ progress at P.S. X811, Helms and Lucas have developed a Rethink Your Drink presentation to show students and staff the value of these decisions. Helms and Lucas are making the biggest impact with staff through peer-to-peer education, sharing testimonials that seem to resonate more with their colleagues. P.S. X811 has also partnered with Cornell University’s extension program. Youth nutrition education classes will begin later this year with a focus on the implications of sugary beverages on community health.
Helms and Lucas continue to work with the school wellness committee, encouraging faculty and staff to embrace the “one small change” motto that the Bronx HBZ promotes.