You probably missed it. It came just before Madonna stepped onto the stage amidst marching, gold-plated body builders and sometime after the first touchdown by the Patriots. In that moment the camera panned briefly to the corner of the field, where a kid, grasping a football and smiling from ear to ear, ran out onto the field to hand the ball to the referee. You may have missed that moment, but I'm sure that he'll never forget the time he got to stand on the field during the Super Bowl.
That elementary schooler got the opportunity to participate in one of the biggest sports events in America through his participation with Fuel Up to Play 60, a program run by National Dairy Council in partnership with the National Football League and the US Department of Agriculture. This program provides schools with the resources to design their own initiatives around physical activity and healthy eating and uses the star-power of NFL players to get kids excited about exercise. Over 70,000 schools across the country have pledged to join the program so far -- that's nearly two out of every three schools in America.
On Wednesday I had the opportunity to speak with Jean Ragalie, R.D., President of National Dairy Council. Jean is a registered dietitian whose interest in food began at a young age when she was put in charge of the salad at her daily family dinner table. She was one of the first dietitians to transition to the communications field, holding positions at brands and agencies before beginning her role at National Dairy Council. She is not only an excellent salad-maker, but she firmly believes in the importance of getting physical activity every day and makes exercise a regular part of her own life (did you know she ran a marathon?).
Here is what Jean had to say about Fuel Up to Play 60, National Dairy Council, and her vision for a healthier America:
To start off, could you describe some of the programs that you're working on?
Sure. The major program that we run is Fuel Up to Play 60, which aims to help schools create healthier environments for students. School is one of the biggest battlegrounds for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic. This program is about helping schools make real change -- helping them to get kids eating better and moving more.
How many schools are participating?
Right now there are more than 70,000 schools that have enrolled in the program. That's 36 million kids that have the potential to be reached. Fuel Up to Play 60 is exciting because since our launch in 2009 we've seen that it can make a real difference; nearly two-thirds of the adults that are enrolled in Fuel Up to Play 60 say the program is helping students make healthier food choices. The program has two core components -- to get kids eating more nutrient-rich foods in their schools, and to encourage more physical activity -- but it is also about getting kids to develop a deeper understanding and desire for healthier foods. In that way I think that it aligns with your mission at Common Threads. It is about getting kids to become participants in the effort to get better foods to schools.
Could you explain how this program is established at a school? What is the basic structure and who implements it?
What the program does is provide tools and resources that allow schools and students to design their own initiatives around healthy living. We begin with an adult advisor within the school. That advisor identifies students that are interested in improving school health and recruits them to help design the program. This group then operates like a club or team. They examine the specific resources and barriers of their school and try to find opportunities to encourage healthier foods and physical activity. Our website, fueluptoplay60.com, provides resources and ideas as well as a place to share comments and stories. We also mail posters and a how-to guide to each school. All of these resources are free and schools have the opportunity to win funds to carry out certain initiatives, like having a cart that serves healthy food between classes. The key is that it's not a prescriptive program. It doesn't have to be done only in the classroom. You can do it before, during, and after school. You can hang posters, have rallies, start walking clubs, and do taste tests in the cafeteria. It gives the advisors and students the power to do the things that are most interesting to them and most feasible in their own school.
That sounds great. I'd love for you to talk more about some of the partnerships that you engage in at National Dairy Council.
Addressing the childhood obesity epidemic can't be done by any one individual or program. It's going to take us all to work together to achieve healthier kids. When we designed Fuel Up to Play 60, we knew that even though National Dairy Council had a long history in the area of nutrition education, especially as it relates to schools, we couldn't do it alone. So we partnered with the National Football League, the USDA, and other health professional organizations. We also chose to work with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an organization of registered dietitians, because we knew that it would be critical to align ourselves with individuals who are extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. In the past year, we provided a grant to the Academy to get dietitians involved in our schools. We had more than 50 registered dietitians in over 100 schools, helping to implement Fuel Up to Play 60 and get kids engaged. We think that other health professionals could play a role in our programs as well, and we've already started working to get pediatricians and school food service directors involved.
What does a healthier America look like to you? More specifically, what would you like to see change in the next 20 years?
Getting kids moving more and eating better is clearly first on the agenda. But the second long-term priority is getting kids involved in the experience of food. It is so important to teach children how food fuels their bodies, how good food can make them healthier and smarter, and how healthy habits can improve their quality of life. Success will be reversing the prediction that kids won't live as long as their parents. Right now, diabetes and hypertension are affecting younger and younger kids. Our goal is to get rid of that in a generation.
Are there any personal experiences that you'd like to share that have shaped who you are and your views on healthy living and philanthropy?
I come from a family of eight children -- I'm number six. Every morning growing up, my mom made sure that all of us ate a good breakfast. We also had to drink milk in the morning, whether it was in our cereal or from a glass. You just couldn't leave our house without eating and drinking something nutritious. As a dietitian I now know that kids who eat breakfast perform better in school. My mom didn't know the science, but she knew by experience that breakfast was important.
My mom also made sure that there was dinner for ten on the table every evening. I was the salad girl, so every evening I was in charge of making the salad. I really relished that responsibility, and I would try to make the salads special by adding all sorts of different ingredients. Over the years the salads got better and better. I think that this experience had a lot to do with my desire to understand food and with my choice to study nutrition.
In terms of philanthropy, I am inspired by the people that I encounter every day at my job. I am so honored to work for National Dairy Council because I get to meet the American dairy farmers that support us, and they're incredible. They live with such ethics and integrity, and they believe strongly that dairy foods feed and grow children. They also believe that it's not just important that kids eat dairy foods but that they eat a good, balanced diet. They've always been involved in programs around nutrition education. Our philanthropic work at National Dairy Council is also so much bigger than just dairy products. It's about eating nutrient rich foods, about understanding nutrition, and about engaging kids in that dialogue about their food.
My last question. I know you're a mom of three. Between work and family, how do you find balance?
For me, good nutrition and physical activity are essential. I have to exercise. I know that when the pressure comes on, sometimes working out can be the easiest commitment to drop. But when you eat right and exercise you perform better, whether it's at work, with your family, or in school. I believe that very strongly. I ran a marathon last year. I climb mountains. I love to do different things to keep it exciting and interesting.
It's also important to me that my kids share this belief. I can see that my role-modeling pays off when my kids consider nutrition and physical activity an important aspect of their lives, rather than something extra. Occasionally teachers perceive nutritional education and physical activity as a barrier to learning because it takes up classroom time. But the facts show that kids perform better in school when they eat better and exercise. One of my core beliefs about maintaining balance is that no matter how busy life gets, it is important to eat right and exercise so that you can perform at your best.