When he talked with an employee who was throwing a holiday office party, Phares asked if the refreshments would pass Office of Child Nutrition guidelines.
"I understand that it was a holiday party and no kids were involved," he said. "I asked the question because it's something we have to think about if we're serious about it."
He supports the Office of Child Nutrition's efforts to make more nutritious meals and increase the number of children who eat them. "I was a knucklehead early on. I didn't think it would work. But I had to learn, like everyone else."
All but one Randolph County schools hit their targets this year, he said. "But it was tremendously difficult to get it going at first, because we had to change mindsets. Cooks, all good people, had certain mindsets about how they prepared food, etc. etc.
"Then we had to go through two wars with the students, the ketchup wars and the ranch dressing wars. Students wanted more ketchup, he said, but "that was prescribed by USDA to keep he calories and salt intake where it was supposed to be. It also took them awhile to get used to the USDA recipe for ranch dressing with less salt."
The current war has to do with portion size, he said. "They can have all the vegetables and salad they want, but what they want is four hamburgers," he said.
The wars die away as people get used to the new situation, he said. "Our cooks work with our dietician now." Students eat the ranch dressing.
Good data are needed
Phares said he wants to support Healthy Schools programs. "I think my role will be: How do I facilitate the kind of data collection through the Office of Healthy Schools and Office of Child Nutrition that will show the value of what's happening?"
The Office of Healthy Schools coordinates statewide physical activity and school nurse programs. In February, major federal funding for that office runs out. Marple had told the Gazette she intended to keep it.
"We are hoping to keep it," Phares said. "There is value in that office, but resources are always an issue, and part of our mandate is to make it more efficient.
Good data will be needed to show the programs are having an impact, he said. For instance, "in Randolph County, I've got data from one school that shows the Healthy Schools programs have helped with discipline." An assistant principal "gathered data prior to the expansion of our breakfast program and after. It shows discipline referrals decreased," he said.
He wants to keep and perhaps expand WVU's CARDIAC health screening program that gathers data from year to year on children's blood pressure, cholesterol and level of obesity. "This is invaluable data," he said.
Counties with no local levy cannot provide adequate health care, he noted, so school health care is unequal from county to county. He favors more funding for school nurses, but doesn't think it's politically possible as long as their salaries come from the same pot as teachers' salaries. He's "all for" school-based health centers.
He praised the state's Physical Education Academy that trains working PE teachers. "They're changing the emphasis away from sports that a few people play well to life sports activities that people can do all their lives." He also wants policy to require certified PE teachers.
He wants food at all Department of Education gatherings to meet Office of Child Nutrition standards. "If we require the kids' food to meet those standards, ours should too," he said. "We need to walk the walk."
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or katel...@wvgazette.com.