News: Feed the Children Well

Teaching schools to practice sound nutrition

Aug 27, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Healthful school lunches improve student performance and behavior, according to Barbara and Paul Stitt.

Across the United States, a dietary revolution is simmering. School districts are saying no to vending machines and yes to hearty meals filled with fresh vegetables, whole grain breads and spring water.

EarthSave Cincinnati has kicked off a campaign to promote a healthier foods program in the Cincinnati Public Schools. About 100 supporters attended an Aug. 17 dinner and lecture at St. John Unitarian Church in Clifton.

Paul Schaeffer, a media consultant and former WCPO (Channel 9) news anchor, engaged the audience with facts about the menus offered by schools and their ravaging effects on the health of students. He cited instances where, in light of epidemic obesity among youth, school districts across the country have began to closely examine students' behavior as it relates to the food eaten during the course of a day.

In response to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, New York City, the country's largest school district, moved to eliminate the availability of sodas, candy and other snacks during school hours, according to Schaeffer. The study showed that 20 percent of third graders and 21 percent of sixth graders in New York's public schools were obese. The same study concluded that at least 15 percent of the population in lower income neighborhoods were diabetic.

Beginning next month, vending machines in New York's public schools will offer fruit juices, water, granola bars and low-fat, low-salt chips. Lunch menus will also offer low-fat versions of chicken fingers, cheese pizza and chicken teriyaki dishes.

Cincinnati activists see these events as a boon to their seven-year-old plan. In 1996 Adrienne Hardesty, co-chair of the Healthier Foods Campaign, and other EarthSave volunteers took vegan meals to the Jacobs Center. This was coupled with information offered in health, gym and science classes. By the end of the week, Hardesty reported, all of the vegan entrées were completely eaten each day and at least 15 others expressed an interest in bringing the program to their schools.

Yet, despite the successes of the experiment seven years ago, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) hasn't made any real changes, Hardesty says.

Paul and Barbara Stitt were the keynote speakers for EarthSave Cincinnati's Aug. 17 program. In 1997, the Stitts launched a similar program at the Central Alternative School in Appleton, Wis. The inner-city school housed students who had an array of behavioral issues ranging from truancy to violence.

School officials eliminated all of the fat and sugar-laden foods served in their cafeteria, as well as removing vending machines around campus. Appleton officials found that truancy, violent episodes and dropout rates, went down and test scores went up. Teachers reported fewer disruptions during classes. Six years later, in June 2003, Appleton School District officials voted to expand the project throughout the remainder of the city schools.

When Coca-Cola offered the school district $5 million to keep the soft drink machines in the schools, school officials refused.

"We're not talking about rocket science here," Paul Stitt said. "These are meals that a loving grandmother would cook."

Resistance is typically based on the misperception of fresh foods costing more, according to Barbara Stitt. But nothing is further from the truth, she said.

"Fresh foods are less expensive, not more," she said. "This is what kids should be eating, not these processed foods that have been stored in a government warehouse for months."

Nutritionists, scientists and even psychologists have come out in support of a nationwide change in school menus. Foods with high fat and sugar content hold the same addictive properties as certain drugs, according to a report by Ann Kelly, psychologist from the University of Wisconsin.

Several years ago Good Morning America reported on the Appleton Project, which has served as a model for school districts around the country.

"I'll be happy when the day comes that eating right isn't national news," Paul Stitt chuckled.

While in town, the Stitts participated in several meetings with CPS board officials, community activists and even city council members. All of them have expressed support in some capacity.

"If you draw one conclusion from this, there is an awakening occurring nationally," Schaeffer said. "It is based in facts and it is an idea whose time has come." ©