2017 Healthy School Hero: Jonathan Vasquez - Action for Healthy Kids
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2017 Healthy School Hero: Jonathan Vasquez

Superintendent, Los Nietos School District

When Jonathan Vasquez took over as superintendent of the Los Nietos School District in Whittier, California, in 2009, he soon became aware of a public health crisis affecting his students: The Los Nietos/West Whittier community ranked 113 out of 128 in prevalence of childhood obesity in all of Los Angeles County.

A former school psychologist who firmly believed in looking at students’ needs holistically, Vasquez knew well that health was a crucial piece of the puzzle.

“I think ensuring that students have access to nutritious food, health education for themselves and their parents, and adults around them who model healthy habits creates an environment where they can perform optimally—academically and in life,” he says.

Vasquez set to work. In 2011, he helped form a partnership with a local hospital, PIH Health, to create a health collaborative called “Healthy Los Nietos,” with the goal of curbing childhood obesity and strengthening nutrition and physical education in the community. The collaborative worked with local health agencies to bring free health screenings and health education to students, parents and staff, and worked with local cities to sponsor citywide health fairs.

The district also began serving diverse, healthy food options at cafeteria salad bars; featuring made-from-scratch cooking at all four cafeterias; implementing a grab-n-go lunch program; promoting healthy fundraisers; providing nutrition information through a “Harvest of the Month” classroom lesson; and creating a Healthy Los Nietos “Promotoras de Salud” program that trains parents as community health promoters who champion wellness policies and educate families about healthy living. The collaborative was awarded several grants to fund the district’s initiatives.

In August 2016, the partnership between Los Nietos School District and PIH Health was recognized as a successful case study in a nationally circulated report by the Health Research & Education Trust (HRET), which showed that alliances between hospitals and schools are successful in teaching students to live healthier lifestyles. Healthy Los Nietos was also highlighted in “Creating Effective Hospital-Community Partnerships to Build a Culture of Health,” a report shared by HRET with healthcare providers across the country, and was featured in an article published in Hospital & Health Networks magazine, which is read by healthcare professionals throughout the country.

Vasquez, who had spent considerable time each week serving as the Healthy Los Nietos program lead since its inception, recently hired a director of nutrition, Lenea Pollett (who has a doctorate in health education and is a registered dietitian) to coordinate the program initiatives. He says the collaborative is always working to add new partners to sustain the project goals of nutrition education, increasing student physical activity, and evolving the change process from awareness to action.

Vasquez acknowledges that trying to meet the social, emotional, academic and health needs of students in a district where 100% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 30% are English Language Learners is a challenge—but it’s a challenge he’s up for.

“I feel that in order for the students to perform up to their potential, it is my job as superintendent to create an environment where they can be successful and thrive,” he says. “Creating such an environment and seeing the impact on both the students and staff is very rewarding.”