USDA recognizes healthy PGCPS lunchrooms

usdaaward_01On Wednesday, February 22, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) honored and celebrated 13 Prince George’s County Public Schools’ (PGCPS) lunchrooms with the Healthier US School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms certification. The award recognizes schools for excellence in nutrition and physical activity based on criteria set out by the USDA.

And the process is entirely voluntary.

“The ‘why’ is simply because our children need it. Our children have needs and we have to step up and meet those needs,” said Kevin Maxwell, chief executive officer of PGCPS.

Among the 13 schools, Buck Lodge Middle School rose to the top, receiving a gold level distinction. Springhill Lake Elementary received a silver designation and 10 other schools took home bronze, including Chillum Elementary, Robert R. Gray Elementary and Thurgood G. Marshall Middle schools.

At the ceremony on Feb. 22, which was hosted at Buck Lodge Middle, Maxwell talked about the process of growing the school nutritional programs as well as expanding the summer meal program and school breakfast. Schools and their lunchrooms were lauded for the work they have done to ensure students have healthy options and each honored school had a photo op with their new plaque and Maxwell.

Each honored school also took home a monetary prize as well as a banner to display their achievement.

“It is us kind of responding to and rising to a new level of work,” Maxwell said. “These schools are leading the way – they’re all working together as a team to really make this successful.”

Buck Lodge, which received the “Gold Award of Distinction,” is one of only two schools in the state of Maryland to receive the honor and one of only 152 Gold Award of Distinction awardees throughout the nation.

Since the challenge began in 2004, 4,178 schools across the United States were certified in the program with 2,866 receiving bronze, 849 silver and 311 gold.

Kenneth Nance, principal of Buck Lodge Middle, said the school was honored to receive a gold award, but said it was just a signifier of the “great work” being done at the middle school.

The attitude of healthy living is weaved throughout instruction at the middle school. The walls of the school’s cafeteria are lined with informational posters about healthy lunch choices and how to create a healthy lunch plate. There is also a pin board reminding students to eat their veggies and to choose whole grains.

Nance said the healthy attitude goes beyond the lunchroom as well.

“We are a true healthy school. Like, I call myself an organic principal,” Nance said.

In recent years, Buck Lodge instituted an urban garden where students grow some of the food used in their school lunches. At the same time, Nance said their health and physical education teachers have also taken on the task of encouraging healthy ways of life.

“Everything is all about organic and healthy,” Nance said. “We do some very special things here at Buck Lodge.”

And both Nance and Maxwell said these choices are having a positive effect on children.

“It absolutely has an impact. When you think of, whether it’s this program or the summer feedings or the evening programs that we have for some kids, these are kids that wouldn’t be eating otherwise,” Maxwell said. “It’s really a tragedy of our time that with all of the issues and concerns that we have – we’re one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world and we just need to address this issue. Our children should not go without food.”

Now that 13 schools have worked toward and achieved healthier goals, Maxwell wants to see more lunchrooms take initiative and go for the certification. Where PGCPS currently has 13, next year he wants to see 26 with 52 the year after.

“Bring another school with you next year,” Maxwell said during the presentation. “So we’ll have 26 next year and the next year we’ll have 52 and then 104, and pretty soon you’re at the whole deal. Nothing’s impossible if you want to make it happen.”