It’s 7:45am on a Tuesday morning and I’ve arrived at East Jordan Middle High School. I’m here to visit Melissa Lyons, who leads the cafeteria efforts in the building, and who has already been here for hours. Melissa invites me into her kitchen and directs me to a hanger of aprons—all made by the school secretary. I grab one and slip it on. Melissa finishes serving students apple cinnamon oatmeal she made that morning, along with yogurt with scratch-cooked granola. Then she puts me on the job of making more granola to restore her now nearly empty jar. She tells me, “I could just buy it premade, but I can bake my own so easily.” She hands me a well-loved recipe and then directs me to the ingredients I need.
Anyone who has had the privilege of being in a kitchen while granola is in the oven knows there’s something mystical about cooking and baking from scratch. The warm aromas, shifting and changing in strength and depth as the timer winds down, indicate the chemical changes happening among the ingredients. In a recipe, as in all systems, each ingredient impacts every other ingredient, and all of the interactions work together to create the finished product. The aromas in the kitchen and the granola might turn out very differently if there were more oats relative to the amount of honey, or if there were less cinnamon relative to the vanilla extract. With all this thinking about the systems of recipes in mind, I take the granola off the stove and spread it on a baking sheet for the oven.
Melissa Lyons, captain of the cafeteria at East Jordan Middle-High School, and champion of whole-foods scratch cooking to help kids learn at their best.
Throughout the school, students in 7th–12th grades, who just cycled through the breakfast line, are in their classrooms. Empowered by the nourishment Melissa and her team serve, the students are busy learning away. Even though schools are academic institutions, it is ever more obvious that there’s a lot more to middle and high school than learning about core subjects. History and math are certainly important, but academic growth does not happen in a vacuum. The well-being of a student rests on so many factors. Social, emotional, mental, and physical needs require just as much support as a student’s learning needs.
This year, schools all across Michigan, including East Jordan, are working on plans through the Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP). School leaders are collaboratively developing strategies to support wellness on a holistic level through the lens of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC). The WSCC model uses systems thinking to bolster the development of growing students within their individual contexts. WSCC thinking looks at the intersection of public health and education among 10 parts of a school community
- Physical education and activity
- Nutrition environment and services
- Health education
- Social and emotional climate
- Physical environment
- Health services
- Counseling, psychological, and social services
- Employee wellness
- Community involvement
- Family engagement
Systems thinking through the WSCC model has the power to transform schools into integrated, supportive environments for all community members. Taking all 10 parts of this framework into consideration in this way means that we can look at each piece individually and at the most significant interactions between the components. For example, asking “What does it look like to change the nutrition environment at our school?” is important, but asking “How does changing our school nutrition environment impact a student’s social and emotional well-being? How does it impact employee wellness? Family engagement?” is entirely more meaningful.
A short hike away from Melissa’s building (literally—along a classic northern Michigan trail through deciduous forest and across Browns Creek) is East Jordan Elementary. In the boardroom, engaged teachers, parents, social workers, school nutrition professionals, Groundwork staff, and FoodCorps service members like me meet regularly. We have looked together at East Jordan’s successes, challenges, and directions for further growth in their wellness initiatives. Nutrition, garden education, physical activity, and mental health for students, families, and school staff are all on the table. Empowered by MICIP and the WSCC model, we can see the power of systems thinking in this school. And it’s happening not only in Melissa’s kitchen, at East Jordan Public Schools, or within the Char-Em ISD; it’s happening throughout the state of Michigan.
Back in the kitchen, the timer goes off and I take the pan out of the oven. By now, the preparation for lunch has everyone bustling. As the granola cools, its scent interweaves with that of the produce being sliced on the counter, the sandwiches being prepared, and the soup cooking on the stove. This is the power school kitchens have to create something wonderful, scratch-cooked, and nourishing for the people they feed.