Health education leads to positive changes at home for Merced students

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comNovember 28, 2013 

— Health and wellness aren’t just abstract concepts with the Merced City School District. A concerted effort is being made to get students – and staff members, too – to eat better and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

The 17-school district has a 19-member health and wellness committee. A health and wellness policy was adopted by the Board of Education about six years ago, and its precepts are near and dear to Terri Soares, director of the Department of School Nutrition Services, and Doug Collins, the district’s director of pupil services.

“We know if a child eats a healthy meal instead of one with empty calories, he will be more focused, stay on task and can excel in school,” Soares said. “My department is committed to want the best things for kids. We want them to beat the odds, come to school every day.”

Collins said there is an epidemic of obesity, and children are getting diseases mostly seen in adults.

“We take it very seriously,” Collins said. “We take it a step at a time. Changing behavior isn’t easy.”

Collins said the committee meets five times a year. The group is looking at ways to extend health and wellness strategies into the middle schools and engage students in eating foods they like that are good for them.

One of the committee’s main goals is establishing, implementing and evaluating the wellness policy, Collins said. The group also is hoping to help educate parents – 15-minute health presentations have been given at John Muir and Charles Wright schools, with more schools to come.

Adam Cox, Board of Education president, says he is fascinated by the relationship Soares has built with local growers, who have extended their growing seasons in some instances to provide fruits and vegetables to district children.

“I’m proud of the fact the Nutrition Services Department goes out of its way to promote healthy eating,” Cox said. “We are helping out local farmers and kids understand where food comes from.”

Soares said research is showing that childhood obesity levels are flattening out and starting to decline in some states. She said federal nutrition funding requires school districts to have a local wellness policy.

Soares said improving middle school students eating habits is tougher than with their elementary school counterparts. The district is hoping to create a culinary council in January, starting at the middle school levels. Students will taste-test fruit smoothies, and those that meet kids’ approval will go on the cafeteria menu.

Soares said it’s difficult to change from white to more nutritious brown rice, because of its color, nutty flavor and texture difference. But if students start talking to their peers, more youngsters may be swayed to eat healthy.

It’s hard to get students to eat black beans, pinto beans, garbanzos, kidney beans or lentils, Soares said, and they wouldn’t touch a three-bean salad. They will be trying a bean-corn salsa that could become part of cafeteria produce bars.

Angela Fletcher, a third-grade teacher at Ada Givens School, said the school has had a garden for about 10 years. The students plant and harvest vegetables and will eat some of the vegetables, such as radishes, raw.

Fletcher said Givens’ students are open to healthy eating options and will try fresh fruits and vegetables all the time. Winter crops of carrots, celery, peas, broccoli, radishes and cauliflower are being grown. School volunteers, including retired teachers, have been involved in nurturing the community garden.

Susan Tingey, cafeteria manager at Alicia Reyes Elementary School, called attention to the Harvest of the Month program that has been in effect for about five years. Classes taste-test foods every month – last month it was spaghetti squash.

“We still have lots of picky eaters,” Tingey said. “They are making some really good choices food-wise and really enjoy it. We would like the children to try new produce they are not necessarily familiar with. It’s encouraging.”

Collins said principals are interested in exploring parent education components during open houses at schools. Yogurt bars were offered at Muir and Wright schools.

“I know we can be successful in classrooms, and kids will go home and impact their parents,” Soares said.

Collins said his son, a third-grader who is a fairly finicky eater, asked his mother to fix some of the produce that had been introduced in his classroom. He was surprised that the boy was willing to try something different.

For school district employees, there are online activities to monitor their health, and reduced membership fees at area health clubs, Collins said.

Soares said they have been providing healthy snacks to administrators instead of doughnuts or candy to show them what’s possible, and teachers who participate in nutrition education are starting to adopt changes in their own lives.

The health and wellness committee includes district nurses, county public health, Golden Valley Health Centers, the Dairy Council of California and will be joined shortly by UC Cooperative Extension. School psychologists, special education, nutrition and risk management departments are involved in committee meetings.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209)385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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