Woman of the Week
Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler: Building stronger student bodies one meal at a time
Georgia elementary school principal launches the nation’s first sugar free school and drives important health policy
Elementary school principal Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler had a mission: to nurture a stronger, healthier student body. She was frustrated with her students’ disciplinary issues, tardiness, poor attention span, and numerous trips to the school nurse. She was convinced that their learning and health challenges – not to mention the alarming number of students who were overweight or obese – were related to the pizza, sodas, and sweets served at the Browns Mill Elementary School cafeteria.
So Dr. Sanders-Butler banned unhealthy refined and added sugars, high fat processed foods and drinks from the cafeteria. Then she convened students and staff to redesign the menus and create the nation’s first sugar-free school in Lithonia, Georgia. Her “Achieving Academic Excellence through Nutrition and Exercise” program – which is now known as the Healthy Kids, Smart Kids “Sugar Free Zone” – produced rapid results. Students’ attendance, test scores, grades, and energy levels significantly improved and they had fewer weight problems.
Now her public health program is making headlines and meeting success with families and schools nationwide. She’s written two books about her models for change, Healthy Kids, Smart Kids: The Principal-Created, Parent-Tested, Kid-Approved Nutrition Plan for Sound Bodies and Strong Minds and Dessert Lovers’ Choice: Naturally Sweet, Naturally Delicious. And this month, the Healthy Kids, Smart Kids: AKA Sugar Free Zone program will impact over 20,000 students in the Westlake/Creekside Cluster schools of Fulton County, Georgia.
1. When you came to Browns Mill as the new principal, what made you decide a policy change was needed?
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When the kids went to P.E. class, 40% would cry or complain that the exercises were too difficult. I had permission slips on file with legitimate reasons kids should be excused from P.E. classes! I told parents that if we didn’t change what we fed our kids and increase their physical activity, this would be the first generation of children who dies before their parents. It’s a major public health problem when we have 5-year-old or 7-year old children with early onset diabetes. One day I just called the cafeteria director, and said, “Can we take all these foods with added sugar off the menu?” Three years later my school story aired on “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” and the state department received so many calls that it shut down the phone lines.
2. Your own health played a major role in your decision to develop this program. You had a very serious stroke in 1996.
Who would have thought Yvonne Butler, wearing a million hats – wife, mom, school principal – would one ordinary day almost lose her life? It wasn’t that the signs weren’t there – but like most Americans, I couldn’t see them. I was overweight, yet I loved baking and eating sweets. My doctor told me, “Yvonne, if you don’t get this right, the next time this happens there may not be a next time.” I had to radically change my eating habits and my level of physical activity. I literally fought for my life.
3. Was it hard to get the staff on board to make this program work?
My staff works for these kids from 6:45a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – eating on the run, relying on caffeine in the morning to get them through the day. Some of them said, “I’m not giving up my candy and cake.” But I knew at least 85% of them would have to model healthy habits for the program to work. We started a worksite wellness program, hired a fitness instructor, and changed the way people ate. The staff started to feel better about themselves and they all got on board.
4. And you got the students on board by asking them to help you design the program.
I knew that if I gained the support of students whom other kids looked up to, they could carry this program. When children buy into something, they’re a loyal market – just look at CD or video game sales. So I said to my students, “What if you could help me create new menus of the foods we serve in the cafeteria?” I told them they’d have to be willing to compromise – no more candy, cakes, cookies, and fries on the menu – and that a menu with more fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains instead could help them become the brightest, strongest kids in the country. So they taste-tested products, I created some recipes, and they made menu recommendations. Their input was so helpful that I came up with the idea to have them as our wellness ambassadors. We also decided to have morning fitness time. So at 7:50 every morning, a line dance or stepping song comes on over the P.A. system, and the kids and teachers go crazy dancing and getting their workout on. Everyone’s a rock star and the students love it.
5. You also realized you’d need the support of the community for the program to truly work. Talk about how you secured that.
I went to all the grocery stores within a five- to seven-mile radius of the school and asked them to carry products that would support the program – for example, whole grain cereal, healthy breakfast bars, fruit trays, and soy milk. Now when the parents come to shop, the products are there. We educated students and staff about how to read labels and identify sweeteners, fat, and sodium in products.
6. What’s your typical day like? You have a whole farm to feed!
I have ten horses, two dogs, and a number of cats who just show up! I work out each morning before leaving for work. I’m still a sitting principal in a high profile school and the demands are many, but I love it. I’m also very involved in my company, Ennovy Inc. that I founded four years ago. Once I leave school, I put on my CEO cap and meet with my administrative assistant and business manager to review requests, return phone calls, answer e-mails. Then I cook dinner. I find I can continue to eat healthy when I take time to prepare what my food rather then eating out. I normally prepare enough for two or more days. I normally wind down my day at the barn and help my husband feed the horses before retiring for the evening.
7. Tell us more about Ennovy Inc., which you created to help schools and organizations with nutrition, fitness, and wellness programs.
Yes, Ennovy is Yvonne spelled backwards. I thought if it worked for Oprah (who owns Harpo Productions), it can work for me! Ennovy, Inc is a wellness behavior management firm that enables public and private schools (K-12) and university systems and companies to develop and implement comprehensive wellness programs. I wanted to create a revolution as it relates to healthy lifestyle choices for families. We’re finally beginning to talk as a nation about how organizations and government agencies can be proactive instead of reactive and make lasting changes that ensure our young people will continue to be healthy. There isn’t one parent or adult who doesn’t want the best health for our children. But wanting and knowing how to support their health are two different things. We must utilize education to empower our youth and the adults who care for them to help drive policies that will create stronger wellness initiatives in our schools and communities.
Rapid Fire Questions
1. When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A civil rights lawyer.
2. What type of kids did you hang out with in high school?
I was always a leader in school. I usually surrounded myself with positive focused friends who were not afraid to take risks and who wanted to be change agents for a better society.
3. What women from the past do you most identify with?
There are three: Mrs. Coretta Scott-King – the wife of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She was one of the most influential women leaders in our world. And although her life was committed to social justice and peace, her children and her family always came first. Also Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer – a great civil rights activist who emerged from the cotton fields of Mississippi. She’s known for the phrase, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And finally Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethone; in 1904, she scraped together $1.50 to begin a school with just five pupils for African Americans. The school expanded and became Bethune-Cookman College. Also, as a leader in the American black community, she founded the National Council of Negro Women.
4. What’s your workout?
I get up at 5:00 a.m. and get on my treadmill for about 30 minutes, and I do about 30 minutes of strength training five days a week. I also ride my horse twice a week just for fun.
5. Cat or dog?
6. What do you do when you want to completely tune out?
I love cooking and creating recipes using healthy ingredients. Cooking helps me to relax and to escape to a place only I can go.
7. What book is sitting on your shelf waiting to be read?
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
8. If you could have dinner with any two people, who would they be?
The future President and First Lady: Barack and Michelle Obama.
9. What is the one thing you do or do not want the next generation of girls to encounter?
I don’t want the next generation of girls to encounter sexism. I want them to be able to go where their dreams lead them without any barriers.
10. If there were one thing you could change in your life, what would it be?
I’d like to have my six sisters living next door to me on the farm so we could have breakfast on the veranda barefoot together, talk about our adventures, and take long walks in the afternoon while sipping on homemade plum wine.