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'Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub'
Schools use nutrition labs to curb obesity, diabetes

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Kaitlyn Edwards said she eats more nutritional meals at school than she does at home, but she is trying to remedy the situation.

Edwards, 10, a fifth-grader at Harper Elementary School, said her home diet includes a lot of junk food, but she balances it by eating a lot of fruits and vegetables at school.

Now, the meals she has at school are dictating what she eats at home.

Harper is a student at one of 18 elementary schools in Clayton County where school cafeterias have been transformed into "nutrition learning labs."

The change at 18 of the county's 35 primary schools is part of the national trend to tackle obesity and diabetes among youngsters. The remaining schools will be added later, school officials said.

Harper's, like other targeted school cafeterias, is awash with colorful illustrations and charts explaining what types of foods a young person should eat, and how much they should eat in a single serving.

"I am starting to eat a lot of bananas, peaches and grapes when I'm at home, and that's because of what I've learned from everything I've been seeing everyday in the school cafeteria," Edwards said.

While school cafeterias traditionally served only lunch, several school systems, like Clayton County, now serve breakfast, and after-school snacks.

A typical nutrition learning lab is filled with messages and characters designed to imprint nutritional responsibility into the minds of young children. Large food charts are displayed showing how much of certain foods children should eat. Each food group is represented by a specific color. Pyramid-shaped characters, known as the "Pyramid Teammates," are below the chart, with each representing a food group.

Traffic signals help guide eating habits

A large stop sign also is located in the Harper Elementary cafeteria. It is joined by a red light for unhealthy foods: fast food and candy. There is a yellow light for OK foods, if eaten in small portions. Then, a green light noting healthy foods: fruits and vegetables.

Lisa Singley, the district's assistant coordinator for wellness, visits students throughout the year to teach proper nutrition. During her visits, she gives recipes for healthy meals; lists of nutrition web sites, and plays nutrition-themed, board games with the children.

"It makes sense, because you have a captive audience from pre-kindergarten, in some schools, all the way up to fifth grade," said Singley. "Regardless of who they are, or where they go to school, they come in here [a lunchroom] every day. For 180 days a year, for all of those years, we have their undivided attention," Singley added.

Obesity is one of the main reasons for bulking up on nutritional information in the school cafeterias, said Audrey Hamilton, a nutrition coordinator for the school system. One of Hamilton's jobs is to help develop menus for the cafeterias.

Hamilton said the district is fighting obesity as concerns arise over a national trend showing that Type II diabetes is beginning to show up among elementary-school-aged children. A person is obese whenever that person's body mass index is 30 or higher.

Georgia has a 28.2 percent obesity rate among adults, eighth highest in the nation, as of 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ten years earlier, Georgia's obesity rate was less than 15 percent, according to CDC data. The CDC also reports that only one U.S. state, Colorado, had an obesity rate below 20 percent last year.

Eating healthy fare

Hamilton said there are meal patterns which Clayton County uses to make sure children get proper nutrition daily. For breakfast, students are offered one ounce of meat; two ounces of bread; eight ounces of milk, and a half cup of fruit or juice. For lunch, the pupils are offered two ounces of meat, or a meat alternative, such as yogurt or eggs; one ounce of bread; eight ounces of milk, and a half cup of fruits or vegetables.

Singley said the nutrition department has begun to introduce a diverse group of ethnic foods, to match the diversity in the district's student population, but children play a crucial role in designing the breakfast and lunch menus. "Nothing is technically approved until the kids say they like it," Singley said.

Tiffany Long, 10, a fifth-grader at Harper Elementary, said the nutrition learning lab has been a tremendous help for her because she is learning lessons she can use at home. "I've learned how to balance my foods, and to eat certain foods in the right amounts," Long said.

Mitchell Boyd, 10, a classmate of Edwards and Long, said there are benefits to good nutrition. "It gives me the confidence to eat good food and to be strong," said Boyd.

Those comments were music to the ears of Principal Lynda Daniel, who sought to get the nutrition learning lab concept put in her school last year.

"With the obesity rate being as high as it is, it just made sense to have this program," Daniel said. "An elementary school is where students get the foundation for living ... We need to have an emphasis on putting proper nutrition in your body, and then doing exercise to get the best out of your body."