FAYETTEVILLE — School districts in Arkansas can improve the health of their student body through nutritional interventions in the cafeteria, according to a study published by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Office of Community Health & Research.

The study, Creating Healthy Environments for Schools: A Comprehensive Approach to Improving Nutrition in Arkansas Public Schools, published in the Journal of School Health, details the UAMS Office of Community Health & Research’s approaches toward school interventions aimed at increasing access to nutritious foods in the lunchroom. Through the Creating Healthy Environments for Schools (CHEFS) program, UAMS staff work with districts to customize nutrition plans, modify menus, obtain healthier food, purchase needed equipment and more.

According to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, nearly 44% of Arkansas schoolchildren are overweight or obese — an increase of 3% since before the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can provide more than 50% of students’ daily caloric intake; however, more than 14% of Arkansas students still report eating no fruits and about 12% report eating no vegetables.

“School meals provide an opportunity to ensure students are receiving the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults,” said UAMS Office Community Health & Research director Pearl McElfish, Ph.D. “The work we have accomplished with schools in Northwest Arkansas can be a blueprint for other districts across the state and country to help children access healthier foods at a time in their life when nutrition is incredibly important.”

The study chronicles the group’s work in 99 schools across nine school districts in Arkansas since 2020. When considering nutritional changes, school districts voiced concerns about budgetary constraints to purchase healthy food, training needed to make nutritional improvements to current meals, methods to make meals more culturally relevant across diverse student bodies, and garnering support from parents.

Through the CHEFS program, UAMS created a customized program to meet the concerns voiced by schools. The team conducted nutrient analyses of menu items, provided hands-on training to food service teams, helped districts secure equipment grants and facilitated collaboration between schools and other community programs.

“Our goal through the CHEFS program is to equip districts with the tools they need to provide nutritious lunches that are affordable, practical and that students want to eat,” McElfish said. “Over the next five years, we look forward to continuing to work with schools on interventions that will create a better state of health for all Arkansas schoolchildren.”The CHEFS program is funded by the Alice L. Walton Foundation. For more information about the UAMS Office of Community Health & Research, visit nwa.uams.edu/chr.

The UAMS Northwest Regional Campus includes 356 medical, pharmacy, nursing and health professions students, 76 medical and pharmacy residents, and two sports medicine fellows. The campus has 13 clinics including internal and family medicine, a student-led clinic, orthopaedics and sports medicine, behavioral health/psychiatry, geriatrics, genetics counseling, transplant follow-up, and physical, occupational and speech therapy. Faculty conduct research to reduce health disparities.