Calhoun ISD: Schools grow gardens and healthy habits with students and communities

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.
The Calhoun Intermediate School District's (CISD) Shaping Positive Lifestyles and Attitudes through School Health (SPLASH) programming has inspired healthy changes in the classroom, students' homes, and schoolyards.
CISD serves schools in Barry, Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties. They have two main goals for their SPLASH programming. The first is focused on policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) work, where school families and community residents have increased access to affordable, delicious, healthy foods and safe places to be physically active.
"Schools make good hubs for the community and serve as a central repository of information and knowledge. They are an inviting place for families to get reliable information," says Angela Blood Starr, CISD regional school health coordinator.
Their second goal is to use direct education in the classroom to help students form healthy eating and physical activity habits that will hopefully serve them for a lifetime.
A Minges Brook Elementary student plants seeds for the school garden.
“By leveraging resources already existing in the schools, like the school wellness committees, we can plug in with the existing work that’s already taking place," says Blood Starr. “For example, with children ages 5 to 11, we work to increase the amount of healthy fruits and vegetables they eat. But we're not only reaching youth. We're also able to work with parents  so these habits are instilled within the home as well. Our parents act as an extension for us."
SPLASH is made possible through Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) funding. MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.
"Our SNAP-Ed programming has helped us establish rapport and trust with teachers, administrators, and families. We've become a part of that school even though we are from the outside, coming in,” explains Blood Starr.

Healthy outcomes

CISD staff have seen significant improvements in students' health as a result of their programming.
"Students are eating more fruits and vegetables and we are instilling those healthier eating habits. We have also seen an increase in physical activity among our youth," Blood Starr says. "We have also seen some policy changes – for example, schools not withholding recess as a form of punishment. And we've seen a lot of progress with school gardens."

Because of CISD's long history with SNAP-Ed, the district has a particularly seasoned group of SNAP-Ed educators. Lisa Middleton, CISD nutrition and physical activity educator, is one of them. She has seen many positive outcomes in the classroom.
"The biggest one, for me, is the excitement of the students. They are so eager and so excited to be healthier and learn about nutrition and the importance of physical activity," she says. "They literally cheer when I walk into the school. They make me feel like a rock star."
Middleton implements MFF's Healthy Schools, Healthy Communities curriculum at Bellevue Community Schools, Mar Lee Elementary School in Marshall, Minges Brook Elementary School in Battle Creek, Riverside Elementary School in Benton Harbor, and Union City Elementary in St. Joseph.
“To reinforce healthy messages aligned with SNAP-Ed programming and encourage healthy behaviors at home, we provided physical activity reinforcement items, like yoga mats. We taught the kids some simple poses and encouraged them to do more. [One student shared that] now their family is doing yoga together and spending more time together," Middleton says. "In this day and age, when we are all so busy and overscheduled, that was nice to hear that they were spending more family time and it all centered around that yoga mat."
Classroom teachers have reported that because of SPLASH students bring in healthier snacks and school buildings have developed healthy snack policies for parties and celebrations. When parents come into the building, students are excited to introduce them to their SPLASH instructors.
"The student will say, 'Hey! That's my SPLASH teacher!' and the parent will tell me, 'Oh, you're the one who brought in snap peas. My son wouldn't eat them before and now he asks for them,'" Middleton says. "They give me some great comments and feedback as far as the healthier habits that their kids are adopting. It's great to hear about the changes and see the changes too."

Seeds of community change
CISD's SPLASH programming has literally spilled over into the schoolyard. At Battle Creek's North Pennfield Elementary, students and their families grow food in the school greenhouse. And, at Mar Lee and Minges Brook elementary schools, students have planted gardens on their grounds.

Minges Brook Elementary students stand by a raised bed containing seeds they planted.
“Our SPLASH program supported Minges Brook students by providing a few gardening supplies, like seeds and soil,” Middleton says. “The garden is a great place to have students try something new and learn about plants and gardening in connection to eating healthy foods. Now, the teachers can supplement their curriculum and the families can use the produce grown by the students."
During the school year, students try freshly grown produce right out of the garden or when they are included in SPLASH session taste-testings. The fresh produce and herbs are also incorporated into school lunches. Over the summer, families are invited to stop by the garden and pick produce to take home.

"We love having a garden at school," says Jessica Day, a Minges Brook kindergarten and first- grade teacher. "It creates a sense of community, helps the kids learn where their food comes from, and teaches them how to take care of things — that when you put time into something, it turns into something great."

Minges Brook Elementary students plant seeds for their school garden.
Day's students grew plants for the garden in their classroom from seed. She incorporated the experience into her first-graders' writing curriculum, having them write about "How to plant a seed" and "How to take care of a plant."
"I see our programs as a grassroots initiative, working with our young population so, as they get older, they have the knowledge and information to make healthy choices," Blood Starr says. "We meet them where they are, and that's what has strengthened our programming. We listen to their needs, meet that gap, and find ways to expand on what is already happening in our schools and community to inspire healthy living."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.