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Food Connects Hosts Trauma and Nutrition Training for WSESD

In late August, Food Connects hosted a Trauma and Nutrition training for 31 Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) wellness leaders, including school nurses, counselors, behavior specialists, and food service directors. This training, funded by a grant from the Thompson Trust, educated wellness leaders on the connection between trauma and nutrition with the expectation that participants bring the information back to their school communities.

Professional development for schools focused on trauma and resilience is increasing.  Schools that are more trauma-sensitive increase the chances of all students to succeed. On the heels of WSESD’s trauma-informed training for educators earlier this summer, Food Connects hosted their training specifically for school wellness leaders. Food and trauma are uniquely intertwined—food traditions can establish a strong sense of community but food can also be a point of stress and anxiety, especially in a loud and overwhelming cafeteria environment, and for students experiencing food insecurity at home. A central question participants were asked to consider when making choices about how students interact with food was “how do we raise awareness about food and trauma and how do we understand how our actions impact others so that we aren’t unintentionally creating stress for our students?”

Joelle van Lent, a licensed psychologist, and Sheila Humphreys, Food Connects Farm to School Coordinator, led the training. The group of school professionals listened with eager ears to their words—learning the foundations of trauma and how to create trauma-sensitive environments. The group took time to consider their implicit biases around food by recording their initial reactions to images food like salads, Cheetos, and chocolate cake. This activity dug into how being trauma sensitive includes being neutral and curious as opposed to judgemental. “I think this was the most impactful part of the day,” said Ali West, Food Service Director for the Brattleboro Town Schools. “It was insightful to see that while I thought YUCK at the boxed macaroni and cheese others felt nostalgic towards it. It reminded me of what one third grader said to me when he asked for ketchup for his toast and I went YUCK, and his response was ‘Don't yuck my yum.’ This has become a mantra of mine whenever I work in one of my cafeterias.”

Another focal point was to exemplify that we, as adults, make assumptions about how students view school food based on our personal experience. The group read aloud quotations from Vermont students about their cafeteria experiences—“No snacks at home equals no snacks at school. I just pretended I didn’t want one.” “It is noticeable that I receive free lunch.” “Too many people crammed in one place. I will probably just not eat.” It is clear that cafeteria spaces are not always safe spaces for all students. “Kids might not know if food will be present at home. This creates a traumatic association with food that can carry over to the cafeteria,” says Joelle. “The question becomes, how can we make getting food easy, calm, and predictable for all students?”

As part of the training, school wellness leaders were asked to create action plans for the school year focused on improving school meals and farm and food education through a trauma sensitive lens. Goals created by wellness teams included:

  • Train all school staff on the material presented
  • Change school culture regarding the use of food as a reward
  • Increase staff awareness about implicit bias regarding foods students eat at home
  • Teach social skills during lunch
  • Decrease the chaos at lunchtime
  • Have staff sit with students at lunchtime in the cafeteria

Food Connects will provide ongoing coaching and support to wellness teams throughout the school year to make progress on these goals, which will help to create a healthy school food culture for all students in WSESD schools. By strengthening the school community and making school meals feel calm, predictable, and a place for positive connections with peers and staff, schools can play an important role in preventing the development of eating disorders and lifelong struggles with food for students. Co-facilitator Sheila Humphreys says, “I am looking forward to coaching wellness leaders as they work together to create strong school communities to support our most vulnerable students, because research shows that children can withstand a considerable amount of adversity when they are connected to a strong community and have predictable calm routines.”

This training was immensely impactful. In the training pre-assessment 65% of the participants reported that they had an understanding of the connection between trauma and nutrition but no participants felt that their knowledge was strong enough to teach the material to others. “I really took so much away from the training,” said West, “at first I was completely overwhelmed and thought ‘What on earth am I doing here? This is all behavior stuff not food,’ and then it all clicked and I realized yup, glad I'm here.’” In the post assessment, there was a 70% increase in the number of participants who felt like they could train others on the material. The ability to bring this information back to schools to share with their colleagues empowers wellness leaders to critically look at their programs and enact change.

“My experience with the Trauma and Nutrition Training was very useful,” said Jody Mattulke, Family Engagement & Education Coordinator at Academy School. “Trauma and the infinite connections and associations with food fostered greater awareness of how students may struggle. Students may struggle with memories stimulated by olfactory senses, have strong emotions evoked by inconsistencies in quality and availability of food and lack the skills to navigate these emotions as well as have difficulty with social settings and the systems around food in the schools. The module on resiliency was invaluable—relationships are the great protective factors to support students as they improve their confidence & competency to feel they belong in the community.” 

In the words of participant Matt Bristol, Physical Education Teacher and Athletic Director for the Putney Central School, "My big takeaway was learning suggested practices and policies to put in place school wide to ensure food security and a positive culture around food.” Schools are uniquely positioned to improve and change students’ experiences with food. Taking these skills back to the schools is essential for creating trauma-sensitive spaces. Students need a place where curiosity and acceptance are the standard, leaving judgement at the door.

In other words, “Don’t yuck my yum.”