the WELL campaign

Iluminada Vilca

School Wellness Champion: Iluminada Vilca

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Nutrition educator // Rochester

WHAT do you believe when it comes to schools supporting children’s health and well-being? How does this belief connect to your core values or life experiences? Has it changed over time? How and why has it changed?

I truly believe, and this has been since I was in D.C. because I worked with children, they are the future... I truly believe if we get them education in nutrition, they will be able to decide by themselves [what to eat], which… will help them for the future. With that we will have a better community, better cities, better people that can decide for themselves.

… I think it comes from home. My mom would say it was very important to start with the youngest kids. And of course, it comes from my dietetics studies. By five years old, children learn everything they need to know for their lives. In those early years with food children learn what they need to know. I see this now with the children, with their parents, with the older ones who tell me what’s going on in their homes. They say, this is how we eat at home, my parents don’t like this healthy food. It’s hard to break that – to try to cook more fruits and vegetables at home.

We had a pop-up class for parents with information about grocery shopping, how to save money and have a healthy balanced diet. At the end parents got a five dollar voucher. I really wanted to talk to the parents, because most of the children can go home and ask about the kind of milk they’re drinking – “Miss Illuminada says that whole milk isn’t so good, we should be drinking 1%.” But then say that their moms don’t buy it. I really see the value of educating the parents and the children.

WHY do you believe that school wellness needs to be a priority? WHY does it matter to you?

We want our children to finish school ready to face what it is going to be outside, meaning jobs or the knowledge they can get so they can find something better for themselves. In my case, which is nutrition, if we give them the right information and knowledge of how to choose whenever they are out, when they start to find their first job, it will help them be better people, and it will help the community and the people around them.

It’s something important that parents mention often – how can the children be able to learn when they are hungry? When sometimes the meals they receive at school are the only ones they’ll get all day. This is an eye-opener to the realities of our communities. There should be more emphasis on the health and wellness of children. Schools are the second home – they stay there for a long time. It is the core of up-bringing.

I really wish all children had this education, it is so so crucial. We put a lot of effort into educating our children in so many areas, but everyone needs to eat every day. Most of our communities don’t know how rich we are in farms and food, and we need to promote that more, and help them to have better choices.

Are the schools you work in “healthy schools”? What are the ways in which they do this? In which areas can they improve?

In the schools that I am in, they are trying their best. The principals are the ones who play a very important role. They need to be open to the changes they need to make. At School 17, fortunately we have a principal who is really on board to change. At other schools it takes a bit of time. They have so many things to take care of first, they put wellness in second and third place. But little by little, with teachers’ help, it’s something that can be reached.

At another school there is a teacher who is really on board. She wants to do more. She has taught her first graders songs about healthy eating and they sing them when I come visit them. It is very important, since teachers are like the second parents for children and the classroom is their family. They can ask “What are we going to have today? What are we going to choose?” In some of the schools the teachers take the initiative to take their kids out for a walk, on their own time.

Little by little it will come from the teachers. I’m just in the classrooms for an hour once a week. The teachers are the ones who stay with them five days a week and most of them take the initiative to help kids make healthy choices. They send things to parents. For instance, I left a “Brain Breaks” book at school. Some of the teachers told me, “Miss Illuminada, we used these exercises when the students were so tired and it’s working!” So they realize it’s important to do exercise and try new things. Another teacher is bringing new fruits that the children never tried before, creating the curiosity to try new things they’ve never tried before.

When I do food tastings, the children say “I’ve never tried that before!” I say, just try it, even if you don’t like it, it’s ok. They say “it’s not that bad, it’s good!” And I say, “see, you just need to try.” It’s surprising for them to see that things they thought they didn’t like, they actually do.

Two weeks after I arrived in Rochester, I visited a middle school classroom. I was talking about fruits and vegetables and how much you need from each food group. One of the children stood up and said “you are telling me I need to eat this much fruits and vegetables, but there’s no money at home right now for us to buy any food.” I was shocked. I had brought a healthy snack, a rice cake with frozen fruits. I was telling her the prices I paid for these foods, the rice cake that was whole grain, and that the frozen fruits were more affordable. But I don’t really know if this really helped this child. The reality of hunger in our communities is very real.

Describe a challenge or supportive experience (related to health and well-being) that you have seen a child/children encounter while in school.

I’ve realized that parents are crucial in order to change children’s eating behavior, I’ve also found that teachers are important because they’re the examples. When I go to schools and show them the amount of fat that’s in fast food, the kids say, “look Mr. ___, what you’re eating!” They accuse the teachers of eating junk food. The teachers really try, in the classrooms I’m in, not to eat fast food. But sometimes when I come, there’s a birthday cake. The teacher says “Miss Illuminada, I’m really sorry you have to see this, but it was ____’s birthday and I need to bring a treat once in a while.” So the image they give to kids, that’s one of the obstacles. Bringing information to the teachers is SO important – they are a big example for the children, and children will imitate whatever they do, so they need to be aware of it.

Another teacher promotes physical activity. Last year in the classroom this teacher said, “ok, we’re going to have the whole day be physical activity day. We’re all going to come like we’re going to the gym.” In her own time, she made a small space in the class so everyone could start doing jumping jacks and pretend to jump rope. There’s a great impact in that.

Something that made me very happy. I did classes with children emphasizing nutrition. After a year, this is my second year in schools, the teacher in one of the classes I teach said “Miss Illuminada, I have lost weight! I look at all of the foods you talk about, like hamburgers, and I am taking away soda, look at me, I have lost weight! I even got an air fryer and I am going to use it, I am so excited!” I was very happy for him. He actually got educated through the children.

Do you believe New York State is doing enough to support school wellness? Why or why not? What more can they be doing?

In the area of nutrition, there needs to be more emphasis on what the children have. The second day I was working, I participated in tastings for children’s lunches. But I didn’t see any of those foods I was offering for tastings actually being offered in the school lunch. What I hear from parents is, “everything is pre-packaged, heated up at school.” Parents are making some changes, but really it’s baby steps. If the state took more leadership, it would be better – easier, faster. When the state has a wellness policy that helps children have access to healthier foods, and nutrition education, that will be important too. I see that the children are choosing more vegetables at the cafeteria salad bar. I want to think it’s because I come to do food tastings that influence them to try new things. When they have events now with salads, that’s the first things that’s gone, which makes me very happy. That didn’t happen in the past. If the state will promote more of these healthy environments for children in schools, it will be easier for us to do our work.