MARCO ISLAND — “Obesity, and with it, diabetes, are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country, and they’re getting worse rapidly.” This assessment by the Centers for Disease Control helps explain why our kids’ eating habits have been a hot button as parents, schools and even the White House try to influence the problem at the source.
September was declared National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month by the White House as First Lady Michelle Obama continues to bring awareness to the problem as part of her Let’s Move! campaign.
Ironically, it’s often the food served in schools as part of the federal school lunch program that’s been called part of the problem. The White House proclamation itself points out that the program was created to help families who could not afford nutritious meals.
“Today this program feeds more than 30 million American children, often at little or no charge.” School lunches and physical education may have come a long way from processed cheese and a game of kickball, but federal standards are still considered too low by many and local schools have worked to create better choices.
Sarah Kaczynski Asbell is the mother of a kindergartner at Tommie Barfield Elementary. She also runs the local health food store, Summer Day Market and Cafe and takes a firm stance on feeding her kids fresh, whole foods. Asbell is pleased with the overall effort the elementary school makes to provide healthy choices to students.
“I love that they give an option for a main dish, fruits and vegetables. I do think school lunches have come a long way from when I was a kid.”
Asbell would like to see the school do away with chicken patties and nuggets in favor of grilled chicken. She points out that these kinds of processed items can be full of chemicals and preservatives. Asbell also adds that small children need a push towards good choices. “As the mom of a kindergartener, I know he cannot always reach his choice of fruit, but he will forgo it altogether before he asks for help. Perhaps a person helping to hand out the fruit and veggie options would be nice.”
Kathy Cambell’s two boys also attend Tommie Barfield. She concurs with Asbell that an extra reminder in the lunch room can help in getting the healthy choices to younger kids’ plates. “Ian buys twice a week. I always ask him if he takes fruits and veggies. If kids don’t take them on their own, I have seen many kids just eat the burger or pizza.”
Twyla Leigh is the supervisor of nutrition and planning for the Collier County school board. She explains that all public schools here meet the standards of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association to help fight childhood obesity. Leigh adds, “We don’t fry anything, there are no fryers in our schools. Fresh fruits and vegetables are offered every day and whole grains are emphasized: Whole wheat breads, whole grain pizza crust, whole grain pancakes.”
Less admirable is the fact that board also follows standards set by the American Beverage Association, a lobby for soft drink manufacturers among others. However, Leigh adds that all juice offered is 100 percent fruit juice.
Marco Island Charter Middle School (MICMS) uses local food service providers such as Publix, Subway, Little Caesar’s and Nacho Mamas to supplement the lunch menu. When asked how the middle school approaches healthy choices for kids, Principal George Abounader responds, “We focus on nutrition and excercise. Our school values a healthy lifestyle for students because we believe that good health contributes to improved self-esteem, and when middle-school age students’ self-esteem rises, chances of them succeeding at their studies rises.”
Abounader adds that student drink choices are limited to water or 100 percent fruit juice, sandwich meat is low fat, bread is whole wheat and a prepared salad option is always available and becoming more popular.
The Collier County Health Department screens students at kindergarten, first, third and sixth grades for major health issues, which include being overweight. Deb Millsap of the health department shared screening results that are depressingly reflective of the national problem. The 2009-10 data show that 43 percent of elementary students and 40 percent of middle schoolers in Collier are either overweight or at risk of becoming so.
Marco pediatrician Dr. Patricia Poling suspects that island kids are faring better than the national average, based her experiences as both a doctor and parent. She believes that good weather, lots of available sports and parental attitudes make a difference.
“As I provider, I want to point out that we eat more at home than we do at school, so I wouldn’t rely on schools to tell my kids how to eat. Habits are quickly learned from each other (as a family.)”
As a parent, Dr. Poling has had children in both Tommie Barfield and MICMS, and she feels both schools are doing a great job of providing healthy choices for students. She points out that food is only one half of the obesity -fighting equation. “How much we choose to exercise is just as important.”
To that end, MICMS is pushing its students beyond the county standards. “Our students receive twice as much physical education than what is mandated by the state,” says Principal Abounader. MICMS uses an innovative software program that lets students set fitness goals and then track their body mass, weight and strength.
Tim Coyle is a physical education teacher at Tommie Barfield. Students have PE class twice a week for 50 minutes. There are no excuses for a rainy day: a half-mile walking path is marked out on the perimeter of the school and is used when the fields are too wet. Coyle wants to make fitness an integral part of kids lives and says, “we try to emphasize exercise that can also be done at home and needs little or no extra equipment.”
Dr. Poling believes the best way for kids to be fit is for them to be part of an active family. “I know we’re all working and it’s hard to do,” but, the simple act of walking behind a child on a bike yields benefits for everyone. “All of a sudden they open up and start talking about their day. And you can inspire them. They can do math as they count distance. Tell them, ‘you are my trainer.’ ”