Spotlight On: Sheila Parisien, Manchester-Essex School Nutrition Director

Students eat breakfast at desks

Sheila has been very involved in nutrition and school food for a long time: not only is she the Manchester-Essex School Nutrition Director, but she has also been president of School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts and a long-time active member of the Mass Action for Healthy Kids. Being so involved in the big picture of school food, Sheila has seen the changes to school food coming, long before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law in 2010 and the Mass School Nutrition Bill was signed into law in 2010. In response to the changes, Sheila did what many fear, she removed all of the junk food from her school without any warning. Every last bit. Looking back now, Sheila says this wasn’t the ideal way to improve school food, but it was certainly a learning experience. In the years since Sheila has done many wonderful things in Manchester-Essex and she is willing to share some advice.

Involve the Kids

When Students Taking Charge was introduced, Katie Millet suggested Sheila look into it. Sheila’s response was that it, “sounded like a pain but the kids are taking charge.” To involve the students Sheila started taste tests and asked students what they wanted to see on the school menu. She visited classrooms to discuss what she was serving and why and to get the students thinking about their future related to what they were eating. She started a bulletin board where she posted old and new snacks and did a comparison between the two. She brought it into classrooms and informed students about the nutritional value of the snacks, and how much healthier the new snacks were. She then asked their opinion on what they would like to eat or see served at school. Sheila continued to conduct taste tests with new menus to make sure to get kids’ buy-in. “Kids make sure we stay on track.”

Involving students in school food has got them excited about taking part in more around their school. A green team was developed and a few students started a garden. One teacher got a grant which provided two Arizona State interns to the Manchester-Essex School. The two built 13 raised beds, and used soil and free plants and seeds from local greenhouses to get started. The first year the garden produced 300 pounds of produce! Now in its second year the garden is still producing herbs and kale in January! The success of the program has allowed it to continue and grow. There is a student garden manager who plants and harvests the garden, teaches others who are working in the garden, and journeys to the elementary school to teach the students about the garden. Two of the elementary schools are now starting gardens. Students have also decided the vending machine should only sell organic and natural products and are in charge of investigating new products. Though Sheila isn’t making a ton of money, it’s sending the right message. She feels incorporating the students into the decision-making process has improved their perspective of school food and she now has a much easier time getting the students to try new things, even a dish like pesto with kale or spinach! “The world is ready for it. Kids are taking ownership of their world; they don’t want us eating crap, driving SUVs. They want us to do the right thing. We are letting them direct us.”

Get the School Community Involved

She won’t sugarcoat it; Sheila says changing the school food climate was a lot of work. In 2004, the Child Nutrition and Reauthorization Act required schools adopt a wellness policy. Manchester-Essex formed a health advisory council and in the first year they wrote in that each March the district had to celebrate nutrition month in their classes as it relates to the curriculum. This meant nutrition in science, English, and even math, music, and art. According to Sheila, teachers are embracing the infiltration of nutrition into the school climate. She believes this support by school teachers and administrators helps to ensure that positive nutrition messages surround the students and come at them from all angles. Today the health advisory council remains very active and includes a variety of people from the community and district, allowing for consistent updates on school food service.

Don’t keep it to Yourself!

When Sheila removed the junk food from her schools, the school physician told her to tell people about the awesome changes she was making, and help change people’s long-held negative assumptions about school food. She passes on this advice; it will not only get people talking about your awesome work, but could help inspire a colleague to do the same! Sheila credits her fellow nutrition directors, both past and present, for sharing their ideas and strengths. She also credits Pat Luoto and the people at the John Stalker Institute for always having the right tools at the right time to help school nutrition staff on the awesome path to change the school nutrition and food service for the better, forever.