Live Algoma: Earning High Grades for Wellness Initiative
NUTRITION IMPORTANT TO SCHOOL PERFORMANCE, LIVE ALGOMA SUCCESS
It’s obvious Nick Cochart is passionate about educating the students in the Algoma School District. But his background has taught him that a well-developed curriculum isn’t enough to get the job done.
And it’s not only his background in education that we’re talking about here. Cochart played football at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he readily talks about the correlation between athletic performance and that of teachers and students in the classroom.
It’s a point Cochart, who is district superintendent as well as middle school and high school principal, drives home each year when he invites John Dettmann back to his hometown for a teacher in-service program. Dettmann is the former long-time strength and conditioning coordinator at UW-Madison who was recently promoted to the athletic department’s director of performance.
“He talked to the teachers just like athletes,” said Cochart. “If you’re not ready to teach the kids you’re certainly not going to get the most out of them.”
To say Dettmann has driven his point home would be an understatement. Just a few years ago the Algoma School District had nothing resembling a wellness program. Since then the concept has exploded and it’s reflected in a couple of significant ways.
First, there was the hiring of Teal VanLanen as a full-time wellness coordinator and, maybe even more importantly, the addition of a community wellness center to the high school. In addition to a 10,000 square foot weight room, the facility offers VanLanen the space needed to conduct community- based programs which align to the goals of a community collaborative known as Live Algoma.
Cochart said a great deal of that programming revolves around food that funnels right back into the classroom.
“Access to nutrition,” said Cochart in a nutshell. “Half of our kids are on free or reduced meal assistance.”
That, in itself, is reflective of the income levels in the community, a problem that has been documented in many urban school districts but is just as prevalent in rural America.
“It’s ironic because the slogan around here is ‘everything grows better here,’” said Cochart. But the challenge has become taking advantage of Kewaunee County’s agricultural advantages.
Algoma is like most other school districts so heavily dependent on federal food assistance.
“We don’t receive the highest quality of food from the feds,” said Cochart, who said the district doesn’t have the means to significantly replace federal meal plans with healthier local options and reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots.
But the district is trying through initiatives such as Fresh Food Fridays when local produce is applied to a home recipe – recipes that the kids can take home and incorporate into family meal planning. The district has a school garden in which students start the year with a meal consisting of fresh produce.
“You would not believe the look on their faces,” said Cochart, referring to the fi rst time kids make a connection between fresh food and good taste. “People don’t know what good food is anymore. Ask a six-year-old what it is and you’ll probably get mac and cheese – processed and easy.”
Cochart agrees that the problem not only stems from inadequacies in school lunches but shortfalls in a family meal that has been in decline.
“It’s an atrocity to see kids go hungry,” said Cochart, who hates to admit that the school breakfast or lunch is the only meal a student might see some days. It’s hard to see any aspect of Northeast Wisconsin as a food desert but Cochart said they exist.
“Some kids live 10 to 15 miles away from a grocery store,” he said. “The poor in rural areas face the same issues, if not more, as urban poor. They can’t afford a car or gas.” Cochart said stress is building on school districts to meet the challenge.
“We’re being asked to give kids all they need in eight hours,” he said. “Schools try to do everything because every kid should have the same opportunity to be successful.”
In addition to incorporating healthy options like the Fresh Food Fridays, Cochart said he has worked out an agreement with Country Ovens in Forestville to provide its Cherry-Delite tart cherry juice and natural performance-enhancing drinks, products being used by major college athletic programs around the country.
But it may well be the Live Algoma initiative that holds the key to helping the community, and communities like it, to address wellness issues that go beyond food to things like finances, relationships, stress management and environmental concerns.
“We’re asking people to commit to a one degree shift in their lifestyle,” said Cochart, referring to the community-wide initiative . “Maybe it’s as simple as drinking more water.”
In just the two years since its inception, Live Algoma has already earned national recognition. It was one of 200 programs across the country lifted up by The Institute of Health Care Improvement for its pacesetting efforts in helping the Institute reach its goal of 100 million healthier lives by 2020.
“We were the only one with a population less than 5,000,” said Cochart.
While Live Algoma is designed to address more than just nutritional concerns, Cochart said food plays a vital role in closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s a culture shift,” he said. “People are more educated on what they eat and you couldn’t say that 10 years ago.”
Now the next step is comparable to getting people to stop smoking. They know which foods aren’t healthy and which ones are needed to produce the optimum results in the classroom.
“It’s amazing the power of food in all of this,” said Cochart.
“You don’t put 87 octane gas into a high performance car,” said Cochart, the head mechanic who has a school full of potential Porsches and is making sure they get the care they need.