Chula Vista Elementary School District’s Heather Cruz is one of six recipients honored with the Let’s Eat Healthy Leadership Award. Launched by Dairy Council of California, the Let’s Eat Healthy initiative brings educators, health professionals and community leaders together to coordinate, collaborate and co-create opportunities to advocate community health. Now, in its third year, this awards program recognizes those who educated, inspire and empower children, families and communities to develop lifelong healthy eating habits.
Funded by California’s dairy farm families and local milk processors and under the guidance of California Department of Food and Agriculture, Dairy Council of California’s free science-based nutrition education resources, Mobile Dairy, classroom assemblies, training programs and online resources educate millions of students and families in California and throughout the United States.
Cruz is a Chula Vista resident that has worked in the CVESD for 19 years, with the past six years working as the physical education health and wellness coordinator where she leads the district’s wellness committee. With the support of this committee, she implemented programs that improved nutrition access, resources and support for the well-being of students, staff and the community. Cruz developed a Site Wellness Leads program and initiated community partnerships and the district received San Diego County Office of Education’s comprehensive health education grant to write lessons for teachers.
Cruz said the wellness committee is comprised with members from within the district, outside community members, and together work on developing wellness goals for the district, then implanting and accomplishing those goals.
“Our goals vary from having parent outreach programs, revising our wellness policy, as well as specific goals in developing the site wellness leads program,” she said. “The site wellness leads program started four years ago, something I developed because as one person at the district, it was hard for me to know everything that all the sites needed. Each site has specific needs. With this program, I have a wellness representative from each site that meets regularly. They develop their own goals for their own school site.”
Cruz said that she then coordinates to bring in the resources, like the Dairy Council, to share with the site wellness leads diverse sources available to them. Cruz said then, they check in with the sites on how they are progressing with their goals.
“This is an ongoing process, and it has helped advance the wellness of each school site,’ she said.
Dairy Council of California Communications Manager Meggan Rush said the Dairy Council supports dairies in California and provides nutritional education for schools that portray dairy as a positive food choice for children.
“Dairy is a very nutrient dense food. It is a low processed food, and it is easily accessible,” she said.
Rush said the Let’s Eat Healthy initiative invites leaders from schools and nutrition champions to come together and create equitable access to healthy foods and nutrition education.
“What really stood out to us about Heather Cruz was her passion to identify unique opportunities and sustainable solutions to advance wellness and healthy eating district wide,” she said. “She works with students as well as faculty and staff to provide science-based nutrition education and the resources that are accessible.”
Rush said it values Cruz stood out for her passion that everyone receives quality nutritional education and provides them with the knowledge to make informed decisions on their health.
“Which then, makes positive healthy food choices,” she said. “We call them nutritional champions. They champion nutrition as a whole, and that everyone is entitled to nutritious food and nutrition education regardless of background, extenuating circumstances, and we really saw that in Heather.”
Cruz said recently, one major common goal she sees is about employee wellness. She said this came from Driving Schools Integrated Assessment, where they looked at different areas and employee wellness was chosen across the sites. She said another need is around health education. She said resources available are abundant in helping each site reach their goals.
“The Dairy Council is one,” she said. “Our partnership with the American Heart Association. We work closely with the San Diego County Health & Human Services agencies. They have a wealth of knowledge about the different resources available, so I coordinate the efforts to bring in those partners to share with the sites or our wellness committee, what is available out there.”
Cruz said the health education grant received from the county was a wonderful opportunity for the district. She said the committee decided to take some of the things they learned from the pandemic and the district’s distance learning and its use of technology.
“We created grade-specific lessons that address health education standards using a platform called Nearpod that the district purchased for all teachers,” she said. “We created lessons that classroom teachers can deliver virtually. It is an engaging platform where you can put videos. Also, activities like Time to Climb where they answer questions and try to be the first person to climb up the mountain. The lessons all meet the standards of the health education that they are supposed to be teaching.”
Cruz said the award is a “great honor,” one because it comes from the Dairy Council, which she said is an outstanding partner for the district.
“I am just really happy,” she said. “Dairy Council is all about elevating the health of children and families through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits. That is a large part of my job as well. To be recognized as a leader around that is a great honor for me. My goal here is to empower the students and equip them with the skills and knowledge to make those healthy choices. One of the reasons that I moved from the classrooms to the district office was because I wanted to create an impact on a greater level. I think when we empower students with those skills and knowledges to make those choices, what I find is that often impacts their entire family.”
Rush said that the response to the initiative was so positive, that it has grown the program from three award winners to six this year.
Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross said the Let’s Eat Healthy initiative is a powerful example of the type of collaboration and partnerships that are needed to support healthy families and communities.
“This year’s award recipients are making a difference by expanding nutrition education and farm to school programming, advocating for sustainable food systems and supporting equitable access to nutritious foods,” she said in a press release.
In a previous version of this story Heather Cruz was incorrectly quoted as stating “Dairy Health is all about elevating the health of children and families through the pursuit of lifelong healthy eating habits.”
Cruz said Dairy Council is about about helping families achieve healthy eating habits.
The Star-News regrets the error.