Nutrition education lagging


The Payson Unified School District still has a long way to go when it comes to meeting federal nutrition and exercise guidelines, Payson Elementary School physical education teacher Judy Perham told the school board Monday.

Although the district has made progress when it comes to meeting federal food guidelines in the cafeteria and vending machines on campus, children still don’t get much nutrition education or sufficient physical activity, she reported.

“Healthier kids learn better,” she said. “If our kids aren’t healthy, we can try to pack their brains and it just won’t work. We need to have some further training for our staff. We’ve been working on this for five years but we’re still not in compliance.”

Many of the questions from the board and audience focused on whether the new guidelines will prevent the sale of delicious, but not very healthy snacks and treats at fundraisers and after-school events.

“A few years ago we had sodas and candy in the vending machines just full of sugar and they were going through the line (in the cafeteria) and just buying it. So it’s better. It’s a lot better.”

She also noted that parents and club advisers don’t have to adhere to the “Smart Snack” guidelines for food consumed at after-school events — like fundraisers.

However, parents who bring snacks to classes during school hours must comply — which means the district has to educate the principals so they can educate the parents. She said Payson Elementary School has already sent out a letter about the health snack guidelines.

The principal “put in the letter, ‘please provide only healthy snacks.’ If we had more time, we could have given out a sheet — what is a healthy snack and what is not. But it’s difficult. Regular cheese is not in compliance, but the big bag of Cheez-It is in compliance.”

Perham said the district remains out of compliance when it comes to some of the nutrition and exercise guidelines. Nutrition and health education classes like many key electives have struggled to find a place in a school curriculum increasingly squeezed by state mandates for more academic classes.

However, Perham said nutrition education at all levels is “extremely lacking.” The district does not comply with either state or federal guidelines requiring nutrition education, she said.

National studies show that American children face higher risks of a whole variety of health problems due to high rates of obesity and low rates of exercise. A daunting 17 percent of adolescents and 8 percent of children aged 2 to 5 are obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Only about 30 percent of children get an hour a day of physical activity, which is the federal standard.

The combination leaves children facing a significantly higher risk of obesity in adulthood. Overweight children face a higher risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep disorders, heart disease, liver disease, early puberty, low self-esteem, learning problems and depression, according to a research summary published on the Mayo Clinic Web page.

Interestingly, the children of college-educated parents have roughly half the obesity rate as the children of parents who didn’t finish high school, according to the CDC, suggesting the impact of education and family influence. In Payson, roughly 70 percent of the kids come from low-income families that qualify for free and reduced federal lunches.

Perham said staff turnover among administrators and teachers has washed away some of the training and progress made in meeting federal exercise and nutrition guidelines. She urged the district to start a new round of training so people at each school site understand the federal requirements.

She also offered an informal progress report on where the district stands on each of the major areas covered by the standards.

Nutrition guidelines: “Not all foods” provided on campus comply with the “Smart Snack” guidelines, which discourage high fat, high sugar snacks in favor of things like fruits.

Nutrition Education: Guidelines require schools to influence student eating behavior with information and skills integrated into the school programs. However, such information is “only offered sporadically and not measured.”

Physical Activity: Guidelines require schools to offer physical activity like physical education classes and information at each grade level. “Our physical education programs are good at each grade level, but students are allowed waivers and time is very limited to meet these goals,” Perham said.

Other School-based Activi­ties: Guidelines call for a school environment that promotes healthy eating and exercise. Perham said the schools do offer structured recess with activity zones and sport programs, but “classroom activity breaks and limited and healthy eating is rarely promoted in fundraising, rewards or schoolwide special events.”

After the meeting, PUSD Superintendent Greg Wyman noted that the state and federal mandates to add classes in nutrition and add physical education classes provides one more example of the way schools have gotten whipsawed by well-intended reforms without the time or money to implement them.

For instance, the state’s universities have increased admissions requirements, which means added core classes like math, science and civics to the curriculum. Meanwhile, the state has imposed new requirements on the length of classes that meet graduation requirements. That has forced the high school to have fewer classes, which has crowded electives out of the schedule.

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