FORT MILL — A few of the bells ringing at Gold Hill Elementary School this week sounded the start of a new school day.
Most chimed through lunch, signaling steps in a healthier direction for many students and, some hope, for public education in York County.
The Fort Mill school tried a new program this week aimed at enticing children to snag the most nutritious items in the lunch line.
Those who loaded up trays with five meal components, including white milk and the veggie of the day, got to stop at the register and ring a bell proclaiming their healthy choice.
Fourth-grader Jonathan Patenaude tried fresh fruit, cucumbers and salads.
“I thought it would be nasty,” he said, “but it actually tastes really good.”
While fast-food fare, processed and chock-full of preservatives, weighs down school menus across America, Gold Hill joins a growing number of campuses aiming to shift tastes.
But even for schools like Fort Mill’s, which go beyond neighboring districts in attempts to serve healthier meals, persuading children to choose whole grain pasta over chicken nuggets is no piece of cake.
Since Roland Cabading, the district’s food service director, cut back on staples like pizza, burgers and corn dogs in favor of more salads and chicken and meatloaf baked from scratch, the share of students eating school lunch dropped.
With the school board’s blessing, Cabading continues pushing new and healthier fare, hoping it will catch on.
Pizza and chicken sandwiches are still served in Fort Mill, most often in the district’s two high schools. Cabading concedes that weaning teens off hot dogs and processed chicken is a process of its own.
But if Gold Hill’s experience is an indicator, officials might find students have more of an appetite for good food than adults presumed.
By Thursday, the number of Gold Hill bell ringers had more than doubled – from 105 on Monday to 212.
“On Wednesday, the entire fourth grade was gone on a field trip and we still had 166 participants,” said Catherine Panning, a Winthrop University graduate student working as Gold Hill’s nutrition intern.
It was a promising twist for Cabading, who said he was surprised by how well things went.
“That was an eye-opener,” he said. “It’s invigorating and it is encouraging. We’re going to try this in all of our elementary schools.”
No pizza parties
Gold Hill’s initiative is based on the Healthy Eating Decisions Program.
Dave Pittman, an assistant professor of psychology at Wofford College in Spartanburg, created it after he saw “most elementary and school cafeterias offering side items and entrees without guidance” to students.
Pittman built a website that crunches nutrition data for meals and returns a new menu outlining the day’s healthiest possible combination.
He wanted to reward students with something low-cost and productive.
“No ice cream or pizza parties,” Pittman said.
They went with bells.
“One thing students crave is positive recognition for making good decisions,” Pittman said. “That gives them a couple seconds of attention.”
The site, HealthyEatingDecisions.com, is free for schools and includes instructional videos for educators.
While Pittman doesn’t prescribe any specific menu changes, he hopes schools use the site to educate students about healthy eating and discuss what they’re serving.
“There are days when pizza is going to be the healthiest choice,” he said. That opens the door to a discussion about why.
So far, 16 Spartanburg schools and 10 others around the state are trying the program.
At the two campuses where Pittman first tested it, the share of healthy eaters jumped from less than 3 percent of students to more than 40 percent in nine days.
Health advocates say schools like Gold Hill Elementary, where parents and educators team up to tackle health awareness, are models for the rest of the country.
Research shows that children are more likely to add new, healthier food to their diets after tasting it six to 10 times, according to nutrition experts. The key is finding ways to get them past the first bite.
Gold Hill is trying.
Students are invited to taste food and vote on whether the school should serve it. Once added to the menu, the children get to name the item.
A recent addition is a salad of zucchini, apples, raisins and vinaigrette that won over three quarters of a fourth-grade class of taste-testers. They dubbed it “Zapple Salad.”
Among the school’s most active advocates are the Healthy Hornets, a group of parents who have made a mission of “promoting a healthier environment at school.”
The group came together two years ago after a couple moms looked at typical lunch offerings and thought, “Yuck.”
“We just didn’t agree with a lot of the choices, and the environment just didn’t promote healthy choices,” said Kara Griffin, whose two children attend kindergarten and fourth grade at Gold Hill.
The Hornets built a vegetable garden with four plots that students take turns tending. One is a pizza garden boasting oregano and tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, radishes and peas – enough for a dinner of pizza and a salad.
“When you put kids’ hands in the dirt and they hold fresh vegetables, it becomes not such a foreign thing,” Griffin said.
The parents are encouraged by the changes Cabading has made since he took the job just over a year ago.
“We see more vegetables and fresher food,” Griffin said.
Panning, who is serving her internship through AmeriCorps, has been vital to the effort, Gold Hill Principal Terry Brewer said.
She’s on campus twice a week, leading nutrition lessons, writing a healthy newsletter, working with students in the garden and directing an after-school nutrition club.
She’s encouraged by what she sees at Gold Hill.
“They’re making good steps in the right direction,” she said. “You can’t change the world in one day.”