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Healthy bodies, Healthy Hearts and Healthy Minds at the European School in San Jose, Costa Rica

Dr. Ettie Zilber

All schools deal with the challenges of “lunch,” “snacks” and “recess.” Picture this…


A little-known bilingual school with a lovely, suburban, expansive single-story campus, with greenery, lots of trees, shrubbery and sculptures and fountains in the courtyards in between the pK-12 classroom buildings. So far, this is not unique, as so many of our schools can boast similarities.


During recess time, the students are playing all over the tropical-green campus: on playground structures which are dotted throughout the campus, on the sidewalks, carparks and tarmacs, painted with lines for favorite games. Older kids are playing with younger ones and kids even climb up trees and sit on the branches among the flowers and leaves. And, of particular note - all the kids were playing and physically interacting with one another, with the playground equipment or with nature – with not an iphone or ipad in sight!

And during recess, kitchen staff wheel out multiple wagons filled with fruit, water, and freshly-made fruit juice served in reusable plastic glasses and delicious school-made cookies. The pre-schoolers, who leave the school at noon, go to the dining room for a more substantial snack consisting of tortillas with cheese, freshly-baked cookies and/or vegetable soup. There are no store-bought or home-brought snacks, or snack wrappers in sight – not even in the garbage! Parents and students know that these are not allowed on campus.


All morning, a full commercial kitchen, adjacent to the dining room, is abuzz with staff cutting, cleaning, preparing, cooking for all over 500 students and 100 staff. Little salt, no sugars, fresh juice and water are available.

All the produce comes from a vegetable garden near the school where the gardener picks the veggies fresh each day - straight from the earth. This garden has been designed on property that belongs to the school, is entirely organic and each day adds the kitchen waste to the compost. Fresh fruit is purchased daily from the market and cheeses come from local producers.

Cookies are also baked on site, and made of oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Kids love them and parents ask for recipes to replicate at home. Bread is baked fresh daily, as well, with great attention to the gluten-free diet. There are additional vegetarian options for those who do not eat meat, poultry or fish (all non-industrially grown).


Lunch begins with a different fresh salad each day with bottles of homemade dressing made of olive oil, lemon and herbs at each table. Vegetarian lasagnas, baked trout, mashed sweet potato, steamed broccoli, carrot, eggplants, zucchinis, and greens appeared on the menu during my visit; the menu changes for each day of the month. Dessert includes fruit in season. All this is included in the fees and gratefully appreciated by all employees as part of their contract. Students and staff enjoy almost 45 minutes of comfortable comraderie around the table. Home-brought lunches are not allowed.

In addition to the nutritious food and free play, as part of the school’s expectations, students take turns setting the tables and cleaning the dining room after lunch. And, another expectation – proper table manners during lunch. Parents are impressed and have said they've had to change their menus at home due to their children's demands for ‘school food.’

Can you imagine this? As a visitor to the campus, I was impressed and thought that such practices could be the envy of health providers, parents, educational leaders, counselors, and educators worldwide. The physical, social and emotional health benefits are obvious, but is it possible to replicate elsewhere?

ettie.jpgDr. Ettie Zilber has served as an educator and leader at international schools in Israel, Singapore, China, Guatemala, Spain and the USA. She would have loved to implement such practices at any of her schools and would like to hear your reactions to this article, in the hope that similarities exist in other schools.

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