It all started with signals from JGZ Utrecht: they noticed that children in special (primary) education relatively often struggle with being overweight or obese. These signals were investigated by public health epidemiologists and, unfortunately, were confirmed. This was the reason the Utrecht Healthy Weight Partnership for Youth made it a focal point. “These are the most vulnerable students, in whom the greatest improvements in health can be made,” summarizes their mission, Jo van den Hevel (Utrecht municipality). We talk to him, exercise and vitality consultant Petra Kür (SportUtrecht), teacher Hanne Kremer and entrepreneur Anne van Boven (Groentjessoep) about healthy special education in Utrecht and how, in an appealing example, literally all children in the SBO school experience a new wind there.
“In Utrecht, we decided to develop an approach to healthier youth together with all kinds of collaborative partners,” says Gio van den Heuvel. “The city has to do this. And we as a municipality are one of the parties in this. And so far, there are about sixty organizations. JOGG is also one of the parties. We call it the Healthy Weight Partnership for Utrecht Youth.
“We started with health indicators,” Gio explains. “We know that obesity is higher in some areas. We know that education levels and migration play a role. Our pediatricians said, ‘Look also at the situation of special (elementary) education students. Our impression is that these children are becoming exponentially more overweight. And so it turned out. “In 2019, the percentage of children in Utrecht who are overweight or obese was 14 percent (Utrecht Public Health). For children with special education, it was 28 to 41 percent. We thought we had to do something about it. So healthy special education became one of our priorities. A pioneering group was formed with various partners who wanted to think together about how we could put this topic on the agenda.”
“The key question, of course, was: Do schools want to do it themselves?” The schools were very eager to get started. “Then we did a baseline measurement and asked schools: what’s already happening? What do you need? The most important thing they mentioned was: we need support. We don’t know what’s being offered.” And there wasn’t a lot of appropriate offerings, especially in the areas of nutrition and well-being. “Then I was given a temporary extension to work as a strategic advisor for healthy special education to create the prerequisites to help these schools. Among other things, encouraging lifestyle providers to develop suitable offerings. Later, we also found that 58% of parents of children receiving special education had received elementary or pre-vocational education as their highest level of education. That says something about the options parents have for supporting their child and the choices you make as professionals to achieve a healthy lifestyle.”
Petra Cure has been a special education facilitator before. She was already advising schools on exercise and sports. The schools also needed someone who could think along with them on a leadership level on other topics. It made the most sense that she became a life force broker and could expand her tasks. This was accomplished in part through the help of Special Heroes.
“We go along with the schools’ wishes,” emphasizes Gio. “I do it on a strategic level, and Petra does it on a more practical level. And, if the schools so desire, we connect lifestyle providers with the schools.”
Thus, Petra Cure makes the connection between special education schools and lifestyle service providers. Petra: “These are organizations that are doing something with healthy lifestyles. So a lot of advice and thinking with schools about what they can do to promote and implement healthier lifestyles in schools.”
“The first meeting with the school is often with the principal or someone from MT, the youth doctor, me, and usually Gio from the municipality,” she says. “Then we discuss why we’re sitting at the table. We show the school what’s on offer. We do it based on a kind of menu that was specifically designed for special education schools in Utrecht.” Then they look together: what would work best for the school in question? “Usually at the end of the conversation, we agree that the school will let the conversation sink in a little bit and start thinking about available options and topics that they want and can work with.” Usually a facilitator is assigned, i.e., someone at the school who guides this process in the right direction at the school. And often that person also becomes the point of contact for Petra. “I often recommend: make sure you have a working group at your school working on this so that you as the coordinator are not alone.” Subsequently, available subsidy options are also discussed with the contact person. “I can help them with that: that subsidy is available, apply for it, then you have a budget.” As a result, schools often adopt a healthy school approach. “They often contact me again when they’re ready for the next step and want to start a particular program, for example. Or they contact their vendors directly, for example, then you have a budget.” As a result, schools often adopt a healthy school-wide approach. “They often contact me again when they’re ready for the next step and, for example, want to get started on a particular program. Or they contact their vendors directly, for example, then you have a budget.” As a result, schools often adopt a healthy school-wide approach. “They often contact me again when they’re ready for the next step and, for example, want to get started on a particular program. Or they contact their vendors directly, such as Vegetable Soup.”
Hanne Kremer teaches group seven and eight at the SBO Belle van Zuylen in Utrecht. She is the wellness coordinator at her school.
She was immediately thrilled when Petra told her about one of the suppliers: Vegetable Soup .† “I thought: I see it. It’s perfect for the kids in our school.” Anne van Boven of Groentjes Soup Foundation then explained the concept in more detail during the school day and gave her colleagues a taste of the soup. The vegetable soup concept is simple: each child gets vegetable soup at school on a certain day of the week, with a good explanation from fellow seventh and eighth graders. “Our mission is to teach every child in the Netherlands how healthy food makes you feel good. So it’s really different from the ‘eat vegetables or don’t eat dessert’ image,” Ann says. “Vegetable soup is actually designed as a somewhat more structured program. You can’t learn arithmetic in one seminar, either.”
Vegetable soup starts with a pitch. Then all the kids in the school are told why it’s important to eat vegetables. Ann: “We explain: every colored vegetable has a superpower. And the more superpowers you take on, the more comfortable you feel in your own skin.
We work with a kind of rainbow. Every week you get a rainbow color. After red soup they go orange, then yellow, then green. With each soup we do a packet with ten or fifteen facts about what’s in the soup. How does this vegetable grow? Where does this vegetable grow? What does it give you? The soup masters, along with the supervisor, get to work with the facts. They choose two or three to take with them to class. We’ve noticed that you have to ‘go through the rainbow’ at least two or three times to really understand it.”
How does one become a soup master?
Four “soup masters,” seventh- or eighth-grade students, heat up soup on Vegetable Soup Day. Then they distribute the soup to all the classes. They also explain to them what’s in the soup. Ann: “It’s so nice to see: you see them grow as soon as they put the apron on. And that, in turn, moves me.” Each parent gets a soup recipe served each week. So they know exactly what the kids are getting.
“How do you become a soup master? Well, everyone in the class was allowed to apply,” Hanne explains. “First, of course, I showed a video . We talked about it. I just started with the kids who ‘officially’ applied. They explained in a note what they were signing up for and why. I got them all!”
Every Thursday is Vegetable Soup Day at Belle van Zuylen – for all the children in the school, groups one through eight. The reactions are very different, Hanne says. “Again, very different depending on the soup. With all soups that contain tomatoes, we almost can’t handle it. Some kids find green soups a little more difficult. And, of course, kids light each other up, too. I have students who just want to eat more, more, more. There are also a few who find the drop-in exciting, so to speak. For a lot of kids, it’s a new experience every week. There are vegetables they’ve never heard of. But they affect each other. And so it’s very important how you, as a teacher, handle it. Always trying it. And then of course every week I say: guys,