Encouraging children to eat healthier should be elementary, and an elementary school program sponsored by the Gila County Health Department that does just that has finally made it to Payson.
On Monday, Julia Randall Elementary School third-graders participated in the third of four lessons in a national program called "5 a Day -- for Better Health!"
"We've been holding it in Globe Unified for the last several years, and this is our first try to bring it up to Payson, so we're kind of excited about it," county dietitian Mary McMullen said.
At the Monday session, students had the opportunity to review what they've learned so far, and to meet Christine Parker, the giant carrot.
McMullen explained what happens during each lesson:
"It's a step-by-step program with a lot of repetition," she said. "Basically we're trying to get the message across to eat fruits and vegetables and eat a lot of them."
In the first lesson, teachers go over why fruits and vegetables are good for children, how many to eat, serving sizes, things like that.
"In the second lesson, we go over the digestive system and fiber's part in that, water intake," she said. "The children get to wear an anatomy apron and know where all the organs are and how long their digestive system is and similar neat activities that they enjoy.
The third lesson Monday focused on Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables and how it's important to try new fruits and vegetables.
"We pass out samples provided by Bashas' Farmers Market to the children," she said. "We also talk a little about label reading so they can help their parents make healthier choices when they go shopping.
The fourth lesson teaches the principles the students have been taught.
The program, which is jointly sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, is based on scientific research. In reviews of more than 150 epidemiological studies, people who consumed about five servings of fruits and vegetables daily showed significantly reduced risk of developing cancers of the digestive and respiratory tracts than those who consumed fewer than two servings a day.
Although studies show that fruit and vegetable consumption in America is increasing, only 23 percent of adult Americans consume the recommended minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables.
Other activities included in the program are recipe contests and cook-offs, radio talk show appearances, supermarket tours for children, poster contests, media events, worksite wellness seminars, state fair booths, and locally grown produce campaigns.
"So far, JRE is the only school that has said yes to our program," McMullen said. "What we're hoping is to get it started at JRE, and if we have good results maybe the other schools will be interested."
For more information on the program, contact Kristie Studdard at the Gila County Health Department, (928) 474-1210.
Healthier school lunches
The Payson Unified School District has been working this year to improve the nutritional content of school lunches.
"We keep plugging away at the menu, PUSD food service supervisor Dan Bowditch said. "New menus are not easy to put together to get the balances you need. In talking to my case workers at the state, it's a year-long project to get them refined where you want them."
The local effort is based on some alarming statistics:
"According to recent state audits, 55 percent of Arizona schools do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for nutrients over a week's time. USDA standards spell out how much fat, calories, sodium, fiber and carbohydrates meals are allowed," Bowditch said.
Last July, a "model" nutrition policy for the state was completed. It included these revelations:
- About 13 percent of school-age children are obese, and 15 percent are overweight.
- Between 56 and 85 percent of school-age children consume soda every day.
- Fifty-one percent of school-age children consume less than one serving of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Eighty-four percent of school-age children consume too much fat.
- If the rate of obesity continues to grow exponentially as it currently is in school-age children, the entire population of the planet will be obese by the year 2032.
That was enough for Bowditch.
"I looked at our menus and had some experts look at them, and our menus were very heavy in fat content," he said. "We were probably in that group of schools that were failing nutritionally. The (federal government) has not made new menus mandatory, but it's coming. So I decided to go with the new menus this year."
Bowditch uses a new computer software program to develop the district's menus.
"Very simply put, the new menus are nutritionally driven," he said. "Over a week's period, menus are analyzed by computer software that has all the recipes and all the ingredients put in them."
Changes are introduced gradually.
"Everytime we cycle a menu we make a few changes, we tweak it, we adjust it," Bowditch said. "We try to put a couple of items on it that are new to try and get the content where it needs to be."
In August, a group of Rim Country Middle School students staged a mini-strike when the cafeteria ran out of one of the lunch entrees, triggering a constructive dialog between Bowditch and the students. Some complaints also were received when the district recently switched from 2 percent to 1 percent milk, but Bowditch is undeterred.
"The Mesa, Deer Valley and Glendale schools are all doing it because it's better for the kids," he said. "I'm confident I've done the right thing and I think things have leveled out. I've had very few complaints."
Bowditch is charged with meeting federal guidelines so the district qualifies for reimbursement under the federally funded school lunch program.
The district has five kitchens, including brand new ones at Payson High School and Frontier Elementary School -- kitchens that were never included in the original construction.