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Wellness committee identifies, addresses student health concerns

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POLSON – The scene was familiar: families talked while stirring sauces and chopping vegetables, but instead of being in their respective homes, the cooks were in a middle-school classroom learning to cook healthy meals. 

The event was part of a three-class series sponsored by the Polson School District Wellness Committee to introduce families to accessible, healthy food. Polson’s FoodCorps service member Elayna Shapiro is a member of the committee and facilitated the cooking classes. Nutrition is just one of many areas where the committee works to improve health. 

“We’re trying to figure out where in the system we need to advocate for different changes to address health issues affecting community on large scale,” Shapiro said.

The Wellness Committee is a group of health professionals, school staff and community members working to prepare students for a lifetime of health. The state mandates that the district has a wellness policy and a wellness committee, but the Polson committee is going beyond the requirements. The committee includes representatives from the local hospitals, parents and each school in the district.

The committee is focused on preventing life-long health problems starting with the youngest members of the community. “If you start that at kindergarten and have wellness be an integral part of our education system then we’ll end up with healthier people,” Committee Chair Roxanne Hovenkotter said. Hovenkotter is the school librarian at Linderman Elementary School and has a Masters in Public Health. 

The idea for family cooking classes arose from a survey last year where staff requested cooking classes as a way to promote healthy, affordable eating. 

Each session had a different instructor who focused on one aspect of cooking.  Former Family and Consumer Science teacher Terry Calahan taught basic knife and cooking skills. St. Luke Community Healthcare registered dietician Jenny Robey taught how to make healthy breakfast dishes. Mariah Gladstone, founder of online cooking show IndigiKitchen, taught a class focused on indigenous foods where participants made salmon patties.

Shapiro sees healthy eating as a central part of wellness. “If you’re not getting proper nutrition, it’s going to affect other parts of your life,” she said. 

The class provided a way for families to spend time together, strengthening community networks. 

“It was a really nice opportunity for people to pause their day, re-center themselves and create a meal together,” Shapiro said.

The classes tried to address common barriers to nutritious home cooking. The meals were affordable, easy to execute and nutritionally dense.

According to Shapiro, participants said the classes showed them that cooking healthy meals as a family was possible; for example, the salmon burger didn’t take long to make so some families said they would try making it as a weekday meal. Shapiro said she hopes to put together more family cooking classes next school year. 

Outside of the cooking classes, the committee has spent the school year focused on gathering information about areas of health and wellness where students need support. The group designed a 10-question survey to identify the most pressing health needs of students. Hovenkotter said about 70 percent of students surveyed identified mental health as their biggest wellness challenge. 

“If mental health is what our kids are saying is their biggest health challenge, we should listen to them,” Hovenkotter said. Students requested small group sessions for working through mental health challenges. 

The surveys also revealed that the use of e-cigarettes or vape pens presents a significant health risk to students, Hovenkotter said. The wellness committee will work with the district to provide support for these problems, Hovenkotter said.

Last year, the committee focused on promoting wellness in school staff. Staff had the opportunity to participate in a wellness challenge. Hovenkotter said the effort was meant to get teachers thinking about wellness, so they could support their students in being healthier.

The wellness committee will kick off summertime with an end-of-year health fair at Linderman Elementary with dates and times to be announced. At the event, local organizations will give out bicycle helmets, suggest healthy activities and provide healthy snacks. The event provides health and wellness resources for parents and students to use when school is out for the summer.

Those interested in being involved in the wellness committee should contact Roxanne Hovenkotter at


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