Healthy Initiatives Catch On In Triangle Schools

Walking Classrooms

Spinach smoothies and organic gardens. Morning exercise and mileage clubs. Sound like a health spa in Sedona? Sure — but it may also be your child’s public school.

Once disparaged by health mavens, public schools are now emerging as leaders in health and wellness initiatives. This is true across the country and in Triangle schools, where administrators, teachers and the community have come up with creative — and sometimes zany — ways to inspire healthy habits in the classroom.

Movin’ and Learnin’

Numerous studies suggest that physically active students perform better in school. So how do you get kids to be more active during the school day? Teachers and administrators at Jeffreys Grove Elementary School in Raleigh get students moving and grooving with a program called Jammin’ Minutes. Parent Sandra McBride, a member of the school’s Wellness Committee, has helped students produce their own 5-minute exercise videos, which are then broadcast to the whole school.

“The kids start jumping around as soon as they see me at the school with my low-tech camera,” McBride says.

The kids choose five exercises. Favorites include sky reaches, lunges and ski jumps. The videos end with a healthy tip — like the school mascot coming on to encourage students to choose a one-ingredient snack (such as an apple), as opposed to something with a list of 27 unrecognizable ingredients (such as potato chips). Participation is strong.

“If kids see other kids doing it, they’ll do it,” McBride says.

The Jeffreys Grove staff hopes Jammin’ Minutes will help them win their first “Brains and Bodies” award from Advocates for Health in Action, a collaboration of organizations working to increase access to healthy eating and exercise in Wake County that annually recognizes schools striving for a culture of wellness.

“We’ve definitely seen an increased awareness of health and wellness,” says Michele McKinley, AHA’s project coordinator. Past award winners set the bar high.

Laurel Park Elementary School in Apex, a 2012 winner, created a Healthy Ideas Team of students; an online “Snack Neutralizer” tool, developed by teacher Jeff Schwartz; a “Fuel Up to Play 60” program through which students track their healthy habits; a morning aerobics session similar to “Jammin’ Minutes”; and a family marathon during which students track miles walked outside of school and then run the last mile at a schoolwide event.

Many teachers find that time is the biggest hurdle to incorporating physical activity into the school day. Jammin’ Minutes must give way to a strict academic curriculum.

Laura Fenn, founder of “The Walking Classroom” and a teacher at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill, learned from experience that students who were given the opportunity for physical activity were better behaved and more engaged in their work. To get her fifth grade class moving without sacrificing valuable teaching hours, she developed podcasts of subjects within the curriculum, loaded them into audio players, and had the students listen while they walked outside.

“The kids were so happy to be getting fresh air,” she says. “Sleepy kids woke up, hyper kids calmed down. And, they had amazing recall of the podcasts.”

She was so excited by the results that she wanted to share them with other teachers. “The Walking Classroom” is now used in fourth and fifth grade classrooms throughout the Triangle and in 35 states around the country. The “WalkKits” (audio players preloaded with a year’s supply of podcasts) and teacher guides are available for purchase online at Public school teachers can apply for grants if schools don’t have funds available.

Farm-to-School Meals

Nutrition also impacts developing minds. While it’s not hard to encourage kids to move, how do you get them excited about kale, turnip greens and sweet potatoes? Tenderly steam the greens to retain their bright color and fresh taste, roast the potatoes until their natural sugars caramelize and serve them up in the school cafeteria, says James Keaten, executive director of Child Nutrition Services for Durham Public Schools.

It helps that the produce is perfectly ripe and fresh from a local farm. DPS has been purchasing some of the foods students eat directly from local farmers.

“Strong farm-to-school programs mean more fruits and vegetables in the school cafeterias,” he says. “This year we had a budget of $90,000 dedicated to North Carolina-grown produce — crops like blueberries, strawberries, sweet potatoes, apples, kale and collards.”

Keaten hopes to foster the program and dedicate more money each year.

“The kids have eaten it up so far,” he says.

It’s one thing to serve kids nutritious food — another to instill lifelong habits. Chef Eric Gephart, committed to providing “real food” to kids in schools, is a firm believer in “edu-tainment.” Gephart, a lead chef instructor at The Chef’s Academy in Morrisville, has presented healthy cooking demonstrations in Wake County schools and participated in Iron Chef-style events that pit local chefs against each other to create healthy, cafeteria-style lunches featuring a secret local vegetable, with students judging.

“You’ve got to make it fun,” Gephart says. “Kids are super smart. Once you engage them — once you get them to think about their food and where it comes from and how it is made, they’re going to make healthy choices.”

Becca Wright, a registered dietitian with the Durham County Department of Health, finds that encouraging kids to cook teaches them to like spinach, for example. Wright is part of the Durham’s Innovative Nutrition Education, or DINE, team that teaches nutrition and cooking classes at elementary schools in Durham. She says hands-on chopping, mixing and boiling make the accompanying nutrition lesson easy to swallow. When the class learns to make kale pesto, they talk about the importance of calcium. When they make spinach smoothies, it’s about eating a rainbow of veggies. The classes have made her a celebrity with students.

“I walk in with my equipment and the kids come running up, ‘Ms. Wright is here! Ms. Wright is here!’” she says. And she is pleased with the results. “We’re getting kids curious about and connected with the food they put into their bodies. Most surveyed parents said that as a result of the class, their child is more willing to eat healthy foods and to try new ones — and some specifically request fruits and vegetables.”

Grow It, Love It

You can bring healthy food to schools, but how do you show students where it comes from? The Hub Farm in Durham, a 30-acre project sponsored by Durham Public Schools and the City of Durham, is dedicated to teaching healthy food production. The farm accommodates fruit and vegetable gardens, outdoor classrooms, cooking facilities and a student-run farmers market.

The Hub Farm offers a farm-to-fork morning for elementary students, during which kids plant a seed, harvest a vegetable, wash the vegetable, prep it and finally eat it. High school students run the farm’s market, which, over the first two years of production, has offered lettuce, chard, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, sunflowers, melons and peppers. The farm has several long-term goals:

–          Provide produce to Durham Public Schools’ cafeterias.

–          Help schools set up and maintain their own gardens.

–          Offer ecology and cooking classes to younger students and vocational training to high school students.

“Kids are immediately engaged and happy at the farm,” says Katherine Gill, the farm’s designer and facilitator. “They truly enjoy caring for these plants, and literally creating their own food.”

These healthy activities and dining programs being offered at Triangle schools are but a few of the initiatives underway locally and throughout the country.

“There’s definitely momentum,” Gephart says. “With all these great teachers and great local resources, we’re headed in the right direction.”

Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.

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