By Jennifer Wohlleb
Austin Dacci might just be the bravest – or craziest – person in Harrison County Schools. He’s the man who came between high school students and their daily fix of pizza and cheeseburgers.
Dacci, a registered dietician, has been making a mark since the district hired him as nutrition coordinator and food service liaison at the start of the school year.
PHOTO: Austin Dacci, Harrison County’s nutrition coordinator and food service liaison, answers a question from Northside Elementary first-grader Soncarae Renaker. Other students at the table from left are Austin Kearns, Cameron Perry and Joey Blevin. Answering questions is a big part of Dacci’s job and goes a long way toward helping students make healthier food choices.
“I was enemy No. 1 when they found out their pizza wasn’t going to be there every day, but it’s gone better than expected,” he said.
Reorganizing Harrison County High School’s cafeteria – which meant making pizza and hamburgers available only one day a week – is just one area in which Dacci has been working to improve student and employee health. Food Services Director Tammy Klapheke, whose background is in business, said as schools are being asked to do more and more in the area of wellness, it became apparent that the district needed to hire a nutritional expert.
“What I wanted was for someone to be a resource for our district, not only for food service, but for students, teachers and staff to contact,” she said. “He has already in the six or seven months he’s been here had contact with all of those areas.”
Dr. Don Stephens, a physician and chairman of the Harrison County school board, said the board agreed to fund the position to help counteract growing health concerns.
“Like any other district in the state, we have a number of obese children and he has been working closely with the school cafeterias, making sure students are getting proper nutrition,” he said. “He’s also working with the teachers and that’s a real plus because we have a whole lot of diabetics in this area, children as well as adults.”
He said the board will monitor the results, but so far, “I think it’s money well spent.”
Tackling the problems
In addition to reorganizing the high school’s cafeteria to offer healthier options and to give students more time to eat, Dacci also works with cafeteria managers to plan menus. But serving healthier meals is only half the battle.
“One of Austin’s goals is for students to want to eat healthier, to have that desire to do it,” Klapheke said.
To accomplish that, Dacci goes to a different school at lunch time each day, interacting with students, encouraging them to make healthy choices and answering questions.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is that being available to answer questions helps the general public accept changes,” he said. “They ask, ‘Well, why did you change that?’ Well, it’s not because I feel like being mean, but there are new school food guidelines that have come out that are pretty strict and people don’t understand that. There is actual clinical evidence that this is good for them and once you relay that message, what the benefits are of eating healthier, students, parents and faculty are more willing to accept that.”
On a recent January day, Dacci roamed the cafeteria at Northside Elementary, where students were eating either a lunch of chef salad or a breaded, baked chicken patty on a whole-wheat bun with a side of green beans. Students also had the choice of carrot slices, grapes, mandarin oranges and canned pears mixed with fresh blueberries. A high number of kindergarten and first-graders chose the chef salad, complete with diced ham, cheese, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, radish slices, cucumbers and red and green peppers.
At one table Dacci encouraged a first-grader to try a radish from her salad. She did, and although her face told the story of her opinion of the vegetable, she just stripped her salad of the rest of them and ate everything else. Dacci felt pleased with the result.
“I’m just trying to get the kids to feel more confident with trying new foods,” he said.
Dacci said there is no way to predict how students will react to new foods. He and Klapheke thought elementary students would like the sweet potato puffs they served one day to replace tater tots, but the orange color seemed to turn them off. However, Dacci said students initially questioned the new “brown” buns they were served, but quickly accepted the whole wheat.
Outside the cafeteria
Meal planning is not the only area in which Dacci, who has a master’s degree in community nutrition, is working. He is helping each school to redo wellness policies; he has provided professional development in nutrition education for elementary PE teachers; he has worked with school nurses; has consulted with student athletes to steer them away from potentially harmful or useless supplements; and he attends 504 meetings for students with food allergies and other medical conditions.
Dacci also is working on programs to include the community and parents, such as a farm-to-school program to provide fresh vegetables and teach students how to grow their own food.
One of his early successes was the Recipe for Success program done in conjunction with the local Extension Service. Fifth-graders spent the day learning how to cook while being encouraged to try new items, like the peppers and onions in a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
“I had parents tell me that their kids came home that day and wanted to go to the grocery to buy things to cook, which I thought was really neat because it got the parents involved as well,” he said.