(08/09/21) ST. JOSEPH, La. — Nestled in the rich agricultural landscape of northeast Louisiana’s Delta region, Tensas Parish residents ironically find themselves in a food desert where 37% of the adult population is obese.
Thanks to a collaborative effort between Tensas Academy and the LSU AgCenter, new school nutrition guidelines and a focus on healthy eating will hopefully impact not only student meals and curriculum, but also community health outcomes related to nutrition.
Leading the effort in healthy eating at Tensas Academy are headmaster Erin Sanders Blanche and family and consumer science teacher Kristen VandeVen. Each of these educators has a background tied to local food systems. In addition to the nutrition policy for the school, they are introducing a life skills course that will combine traditional home economics and agricultural education with the needs of a community that has limited fresh produce access.
“I have always combined agriculture into the science classes and labs,” said Blanche, a 21-year teaching veteran. “I realize the value in educating students on the connection between food production, preparation and consumption.”
For the past three years, Blanche has been headmaster at Tensas Academy, where she has been a proponent of bringing nutrition and ag education back into the classroom. During this time, Blanche has fought a personal cancer battle, which has been an impetus to improve her own health and the health of her students through more nutritious eating.
VandeVen attended Louisiana Tech University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe to major in family and consumer sciences. She worked in information technology at Cross Keys Bank for 18 years before retiring to become what she calls a “professional volunteer.” Due to her concerns about healthy eating, VandeVen earned her Louisiana nursery license and began Tensas Transplants, a business that sells fruit and vegetable starter plants locally.
VandeVen agreed to teach computer science at Tensas Academy in fall 2021 under the condition that the school bring back a life skills class combining nutrition and ag education.
The life skills class will have an impact beyond the walls of VandeVen’s classroom. The course includes a school garden whose produce will be used in the school cafeteria, sold at the local farmers market and included in cooking demonstrations for the community.
The school garden is being revitalized through a grant from the LSU AgCenter Farm to School Program. A vocational kitchen is being built from the ground up thanks to a virtual fundraiser. The school garden and kitchen will allow recipes to be prepared and taste-tested by the students, then incorporated into the larger meal service for the entire school.
“The farm to school approach, when taken in its entirety, is a holistic approach that incorporates experiential nutrition and agricultural education with school gardens and serving fresh, local fruits and vegetables,” said Crystal Besse, director of the LSU AgCenter Farm to School Program. “When these strategies are combined, all of them together enable lasting behavior change.”
The kitchen will also be used by the community for nutrition education programming. There is currently no publicly accessible demonstration kitchen in the parish. The Tensas Academy kitchen will include two cooking stations and will be available to community groups such as 4-H, Tensas Healthy Communities and the Council on Aging.
Solidifying these steps in a healthier direction are the school’s new Nutrition Guidelines and Healthy Foods Policy. The policy was written in collaboration with the LSU AgCenter and adopted by the Tensas Academy Board of Directors in July 2021. The policy has changed three things:
— Nutritional “must haves” are explicitly stated and include serving fruits and vegetables at every meal.
— Procurement policies for school meal planning limit sugar, sodium and fat.
— A “signal light” system will use green, yellow and red color coding to suggest to students how to best plan their own food intake.
VandeVen said these plans nudge students into healthy eating by giving them ownership of food choices in an environment where healthier options are the norm. One of her goals is to have free samples of seasonal foods available once a week.
“Think of it like Sam’s. It’s free, so you try the sample, and if you like it, you get more,” VandeVen said. “That’s what we want to do in the cafeteria. Get them to try the roasted sweet potatoes this week and then next week, put it on the school lunch menu.”
Blanche and VandeVen hope the school’s new nutrition program will impact the entire parish. VandeVen wants to collaborate with community groups and spark a greater focus on nutrition, and Blanche sees the nutrition guidelines as a catalyst for these changes.
Tensas Academy family and consumer science teacher Kristen VandeVen and headmaster Erin Sanders Blanche examine plans for the school’s garden. Photo by Head to Toe Photography
Tensas Academy family and consumer science teacher Kristen VandeVen, cafeteria manager Pam Lemke and headmaster Erin Sanders Blanche pose in the school cafeteria. Photo by Head to Toe Photography