Healthy Homework: Providing healthier choices

February 4, 2011 

Look what your kids are eating in school.

Merced County school officials say they're trying their best to keep youngsters away from less nutritious foods and keep them from overeating.

However, they can't control what teens eat once they step off campus.

William Dunlavy, director of Nutrition Services at Merced Union High School District, said the food that's served at the high schools isn't made from scratch, but it's better than fast food. All the food is low in fat calories.

Dunlavy said nutritional services at each school must comply with certain guidelines from the state. "It's our goal in the schools to feed them better," he added. "We make sure the portion is right. We don't super-size anything."

The district has what's called an "offered meal," which consists of many entrée choices. With the entrée choice, students can pick sides of fruits, vegetables, salads, and nonfat and 1 percent milk to make a meal. "We display our fruits and vegetables in an appetizing, easy-to-eat and highly colorful manner to compel students to take and enjoy them," he said.

That system lets students take what they'll eat and not throw away items, Dunlavy said.

The only a la carte items sold in the schools include juices, which have to be 100 percent juice, bottled water and sports drinks. Low-fat snacks, such as granola bars and baked hot Cheetos, also are sold at the campuses. (Baked Chee- tos are lower in fat because they're not fried.)

Sodas aren't sold at any of the campuses, Dunlavy said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2008 School Health Profiles Survey, fewer schools in the country sold unhealthy foods and beverages in their vending machines, stores and snack bars in 2008 compared with 2006. The report suggests that efforts to improve the school nutritional environment are working because in 17 states, the majority of secondary schools no longer sell unhealthy foods and beverages.

California is among four states where more than two-thirds of the secondary schools don't sell items such as soda, fruit drinks that aren't 100 percent juice and salty snacks not low in fat.

Dunlavy said school officials have been making constant changes in the menus and other parts of their nutritional services programs since 2005. "(Students) still eat their hamburgers and pizzas, but they are low in fat," he said.

Officials try their best to stay on top of state guidelines and to provide the best possible meals for students, Dunlavy said. But they can't stop youngsters from eating unhealthy foods, such as fast food, when they get out of school. "We have no control of what happens after school at home or during the weekends," he explained.

About 75 percent of the students in the district are in the free or reduced lunch program, Dunlavy said. The district has about 10,400 students.

It takes about $800,000 to run each nutritional service program at each of the high schools in the Merced Union High School District.

Dunlavy said about 90 percent of the money is reimbursed by the federal government as part of the National School Lunch Program, and 10 percent comes from the state.

Each high school in the district has a wellness policy and a wellness committee that works to promote good nutrition and physical activity. For example, the Atwater High School Wellness Committee, which consists of school administrators, teachers, parents and students, is working to accomplish several healthy goals. Some of those goals include having physical education classes include nutrition as part of the curriculum; offering culinary arts promoting healthy cooking and foods; and having teachers offer an intramural athletics program during lunch and after school to help keep students active.

The Health and Wellness Committee at Merced High School made it possible for health and wellness classes to include nutrition as part of their curriculum. On a daily basis, the school also offers supervised intramural sports to encourage physical activity.

Dunlavy said the district is part of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization established by the American Heart Association in 2005 to help develop lifelong, healthy habits in young people and eliminate childhood obesity. The alliance along with the California Endowment awards mini-grants for schools to establish good nutrition and physical activity programs.

Golden Valley and Livingston high schools were selected out of 21 schools in the Central Valley to receive a $5,000 mini-grant each from The California Endowment, Dunlavy said.

The grants will help start a wellness-based health and physical activity program for students and staff at their campuses.

Other schools in the area are implementing new programs to help improve students' eating habits. Alison Kahl, superintendent for the Snelling-Merced Falls Union Elementary School District, said this school year officials removed a snack breakfast program and replaced it with a healthy one.

Before, as part of their breakfast, students could choose a prepackaged snack, such as popcorn, cookies or processed cheese and crackers. The program was only available for those who could afford it, because it was set up as a snack venue and only those who brought money could buy the items.

Now as part of their healthy breakfast, students can get fruit, whole-wheat waffles, low-fat yogurt, milk and juice. "The new breakfast program made it accessible for everyone to have a healthy option," Kahl said. Students who qualify for a free or reduced lunch also are able to participate.

Students pay only $1 for the healthy breakfast. About 60 percent of the district's students now eat breakfast at school every day.

Kahl said school administrators have received positive feedback from parents and teachers. "We've also found that we have seen better results in the classrooms," she added. "They seem to perform better in the classroom, and we have seen drastically fewer students coming into the office saying they don't feel well."

School officials decided to start the healthy breakfast program because the cafeteria was losing money with the snack program. The new regimen has helped change students' behavior, health and eating habits. "The program has really run great for us," she continued. "The results from students have been wonderful all the way around."

Kahl said the California Department of Education offers several programs that schools can apply for to help improve children's eating habits.

Terri Soares, registered dietitian and nutrition services director at the Merced City School District, said its schools' menus also have undergone a face-lift to provide healthier options. In 2007, she began to scrutinize the sugar levels and dropped a few items from the menu, such as strawberry-flavored milk.

Soares also reduced the number of times juice and dessert were offered, and made milk more available.

In the past two years, she's been trying to increase the variety of fruits and vegetables for students. She also has developed strategies to make vegetables more appealing. For example, servers began to cut cucumbers in wedges and served them with lemon juice, which made the students eat more of them. "We at least doubled the consumption of cucumbers," she added.

A few schools in the district are participating in the Healthier US School Challenge. Established in 2004 by the Department of Agriculture, it recognizes schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier environments.

The Healthier US School Challenge is supported by Michelle Obama. In early 2010, when the first lady introduced her campaign, "Let's Move," she incorporated the challenge into her program. Monetary incentive awards became available for schools based on four levels.

The district also began a pilot Second Chance Breakfast program at two of its middle schools. Students who don't get the opportunity to eat breakfast before school are given a second chance to eat breakfast about 10 a.m.

Like Kahl, Soares said children who have a healthy breakfast tend to focus better and perform better on tests.

Le Grand High School officials are being proactive rather than reactive.

Principal Javier Martinez said the high school, which has about 480 students, offers several programs that promote healthier lifestyles under the umbrella of the Fit Club, an after-school program. The first component of the Fit Club was a 10-week shape-up program.

About 20 students participated. Students learned about healthy eating options, nutritional supplementation and how to set up exercising goals. "It was about making better choices," he said.

The second component, which started just last week, is a culinary arts piece. "In shape-up you teach them what to look for and how to read labels, and in this (program) they are preparing their own meals," he explained.

Those programs, among others, are funded by a $250,000 grant the school received for a five-year period designed specifically for after-school programs.

Martinez said Le Grand High School doesn't have much of an obesity problem. But officials want to be proactive, so they offer such programs for their students.

According to the CDC, schools play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behaviors, such as good eating habits and participating in physical activity.

But overall, there's still work to do.

According to data included in a CDC report, "Improving the Health of our Nation's Youth: At a Glance 2010," almost 80 percent of high school students don't eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Only one in three participate in a daily physical education class. The report also found that one in three children and adolescents in the country is overweight or obese.

In California, 14 percent of adolescents are obese and 16 percent are overweight, according to a 2009 UCLA Health Policy Research Brief.

It may not be easy to reverse recent trends that have left youngsters overweight and undernourished. But as Le Grand and other area high schools are starting to show, at least people are trying to head toward health.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6506 or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.

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