The Inspirational Story of St. Tammany Parish Schools Before and After Katrina Pt. 1

Last Published: 06/20/2013
Jimmy Nguyen

My assignment was to video First Lady Michelle Obama?s appearance at Brock Elementary School in Slidell, Louisiana. Mrs. Obama would be there to recognize the schools of St. Tammany Parish for winning the Gold of Distinction award as part of the Food and Nutrition Service?s HealthierUS School Challenge. In Mrs. Obama's words, the Gold of Distinction award is "the highest honor that the USDA awards" for extraordinary achievements in school health and nutrition.

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My assignment to video the HealthierUS School Challenge event was straightforward on paper. However, I felt my trip took on extra significance because my trip came at the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, an event which nearly destroyed the city of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, including St. Tammany.

Since I was recording Mrs. Obama while she was promoting healthier schools, I was afforded the opportunity to spend time with school nutrition directors and cafeteria workers and talk to them about the state of their schools pre and post-Katrina. At Brock Elementary School, I had scheduled interviews with Sylvia Dunn, the former food service supervisor for St. Tammany Parish, now a consultant helping other school systems become healthier, and Cindy Emmons, the current cafeteria manager at Brock Elementary.

Michelle Obama with Brock Elementary studentsFirst Lady Michelle Obama greets the adoring students of Brock Elementary. Mrs. Obama's visit only confirmed to the students that they were indeed "all that."

To say my time spent talking to both Mrs. Dunn and Mrs. Emmons was inspiring does not fully capture my feelings. Not counting the oppressive humidity, Ms. Sylvia and Ms. Cindy were the first to welcome me to Louisiana and they were quite the ambassadors. I had heard of southern hospitality and grace, but to experience it the St. Tammany way was as sweet and satisfying as taking my first bite of bread pudding from Mother?s restaurant in New Orleans.

Mrs. Dunn told me about the 26 years of hard work it took the food service workers, teachers, and administrators of St. Tammany to transform the overall health and nutrition of their schools. Through patience and creativity, St. Tammany schools currently serve some of the most nutritious and healthy meals in the country and they do it all while staying true to the influences of local cuisine. Some of the dishes they serve include greaseless gumbo and whole wheat king cakes.

The schools have also implemented effective nutrition and physical education initiatives that include a jump roping club, healthy food taste-tests in the classroom, student nutrition advisors, and nutrition lessons taught by the cafeteria workers themselves. By the time the HealthierUS School Challenge was established in 2004 to encourage more schools to transform their health and nutrition culture, St. Tammany schools, had already implemented many of the components required by the HealthierUS School Challenge long ago. Naturally, when the St. Tammany schools applied to the HealthierUS School Challenge in 2005, they were awarded the first Gold awards in the nation.

Sylvia Dunn - Former Food Service Supervisor for St. Tammany ParishThe unstoppable Sylvia Dunn gave one of the most enlightening interviews I've ever done. She has made it her life's mission to transform school food and health.

However, the most amazing part of this story has not been told yet. The St. Tammany Parish schools won their Gold awards in 2005, which was the very same year Hurricane Katrina arrived and turned their lives upside down. How were they able to overcome this disaster and still win the Gold award the very same year? Stay tuned for part two of our story.