When Principal Jessica Downey received a plain white envelope bearing a return address from The White House a few weeks ago, she was admittedly skeptical.
“My first reaction was, OK, what scam is this?” Downey recalled.
Even after she opened the envelope and found a letter inside from United States First Lady Michelle Obama, Downey was not convinced it was real.
Until she looked closer.
“I still wasn’t believing that it was Michelle Obama. I thought, oh, somebody was just stamping her name, until I turned it over and I could see her ink through the back [of the paper],” Downey said.
The principal's revelation was shared as part of a ceremony held Thursday, March 15 in the High Rock School cafeteria celebrating High Rock being the first school in Massachusetts to receive the HealthierUS School Challenge Gold Award of Distinction. Presented through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the award is the highest honor bestowed through the HUSSC program and recognizes High Rock for meeting rigorous standards in health and wellness, physical education and nutrition.
High Rock joins just three schools among 12,000 in the New England region to earn the distinction and is among only 2 percent of approximately 101,000 schools nationwide that have earned HUSSC status, according to John Magnarelli, regional director for the USDA’s special nutrition programs.
“You guys are knocking the ball out of the park,” Magnarelli told the High Rock School staff, students and parents who gathered for the celebration on Thursday.
In her letter—which was reprinted on programs for the event—the First Lady explained that the HUSSC program is the cornerstone of the nationwide “Let’s Move” initiative, which aims to solve the childhood obesity epidemic present in today’s generation.
“As a winner of the Gold Award of Distinction, High Rock Middle School is among the very best of the best—going above and beyond minimum requirements to help ensure your students live full and active lives,” Mrs. Obama wrote.
Downey said she “could not be prouder” of her staff and the many people involved and noted that High Rock had been recognized not for efforts made just to receive an award but for what they already do every day.
“The choices that we have made along the way have always been focused on what’s good for students and what’s good for our community, and that’s what’s being recognized, and that is all attributed to the people who are in this room today,” Downey said.
Food Services Director Ruth Griffin, a registered dietician, said that the district had “always been ahead of the curve when it comes to nutrition” and that since she was hired eight years ago, she and her staff had “continually made changes that we know are right for kids.”
“We started by cutting back on the number of times a week we serve ice cream from five days to one day. We started requiring that every school serve at least four fresh fruits per day, that we have carrots available on the menu every day and that every kid has the opportunity to have a chicken Caesar salad,” Griffin said.
About four years ago, the district began slowly introducing whole wheat and grains into school menus—literally, one slice at a time—by serving sandwiches with one slice each of white and wheat bread and eventually switching to all-wheat.
High Rock School has also been adding more beans to its recipes—one of the requirements for the HealthierUS School Challenge—and serves only low-fat or fat-free milk and healthy à la carte options, Griffin said.
In addition, the school has a wellness policy, is a member of the USDA’s Team Nutrition, meets nutrition and physical education requirements and has at least 70 percent of the student body eating the school-provided lunches every day.
As part of the award, High Rock School will receive a plaque and banner recognizing it as a HUSSC Gold School and the district will receive $2,000 toward its nutrition and wellness programs. Individuals involved in receiving the award—including Griffin, Downey, High Rock Cafeteria Manager Barbara Buckley, food service employees and others—also received certificates of recognition.
Griffin said she hopes to see Needham's other schools eventually earn Gold Distinction status.