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MOUNT WASHINGTON - Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years and America’s youth are at risk of becoming the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
In an effort to help reverse this trend, Eastside Middle School recently kicked off a unique program that empowers students to take action to improve nutrition and physical activity at their school and for their own health.
A school-wide celebration in the Eastside gymnasium marked the official start to Fuel Up to Play 60, sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League.
And students gave a special presentation to members of the Bullitt County Public School Board on Tuesday.
Lead by special guest speaker retired NFL player Artose Pinner, students accepted the Fuel Up to Play 60 challenge, pledging to energize their bodies and minds by eating healthy, to be active for at least 60 minutes a day.
“I will eat healthy, be active and have fun with my friends to help make my school an even better place,” the students said in unison.
With that, Southeast United Dairy Industry Association manager of school programs Kathy Belcher joined Pinner to present a $4,000 grant for program implementation to Eastside Fuel Up to Play 60 program advisors Jodi Grant and Becky Willoughby.
Eastside is only the second school in the district designated a Fuel Up to Play 60 school after Maryville Elementary School.
Willoughby, a Bullitt County Public Schools food service program assistant, sought the program grant last year when she was Eastside’s cafeteria manager.
Since receiving the grant over the summer the school has purchased two merchandise refrigerators to display healthy breakfast and lunch options.
By simply making healthy entrees like salads, veggie wraps, fruit and yogurt parfaits more visually appealing to students, Eastside cafeteria manager Darlene Heuser said such items have been selling out.
“When it’s in front of them and it looks good I think they’re more conscious of choosing the healthier options,” she said. “It’s amazing to me to watch them come through the line and make the choices they do.”
In addition to making healthy foods more visually appealing, Heuser said cafeteria staff have worked with BCPS to bring in more wholesome foods even before Eastside got onboard with Fuel Up to Play 60.
BCPS director of school food service Cindy Kleinhelter said that while they have a long way to go and it certainly hasn’t been easy, the district has made impressive strides in improving the quality of lunchroom food.
Kleinhelter said the goal of food services has always been getting the freshest most wholesome foods into BCPS cafeterias, adding that besides getting the SUDIA grant to Eastside, Willoughby has gotten grants and rebates for local items such as Kentucky Proud products, through grants and rebates.
Of course cost plays a key role in what’s served because there’s only so much parents can afford to pay, but Kleinhelter said food services has been selective and central office has received several compliments on the district’s menu.
Kleinhelter added that new, healthier items have been well received by students districtwide.
“You’re never going to please 8,000 students who eat lunch in our cafeterias, but we’re using data to determine what they want most and how we can offer that while keeping proper nutrition in mind,” she said. “We’re not 100 percent yet, but we’re working on it.”
Kleinhelter commended Eastside and Maryville for their Fuel Up to Play 60 programs and said she wished every BCPS school would participate.
“Our schools are an important part of encouraging students to make healthy choices,” she said.
While Eastside only recently kicked off its Fuel Up to Play 60 program, some students have been encouraging their peers to be active and eat healthy for weeks.
As one of the program’s co-advisors, seventh-grade teacher Sarah Mills heads up a group of 20 student ambassadors responsible for keeping their classmates mindful of the Fuel Up to Play 60 challenge.
“Basically they’re the cheerleaders for the program,” Mills said.
Besides promoting the program school-wide via posters and during Eastside’s morning announcements , these ambassadors help facilitate a morning walking club that began Oct. 1.
The club, which meets Tuesdays and Thursdays before school starts, boasts more than 100 students.
Eastside Physical Education teacher and Fuel Up to Play 60 co-advisor Jodi Grant said student ambassadors track participants’ steps with pedometers and their goal is that each will have walked 50 miles before May.
Grant, who has been with Eastside for nearly a decade, said it’s always been her mission to encourage students to be active and eat healthy, but with childhood and adolescent obesity rates at an all-time high, she felt Fuel Up to Play 60 would better help kids understand the importance of personal health.
Grant said she hoped Fuel Up to Play 60 schools like Eastside and Maryville would serve as models for other BCPS schools that may want to consider getting onboard.
The program’s nationwide 2011-2012 utilization survey shows that schools enrolled in the program have incresed students’ access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity.
Since the fall of 2010, nearly 73,000 schools across the country have enrolled in the program, according to Belcher.
Additionally, Belcher said SUDIA has provided grants to 55 different schools in Kentucky.
Belcher said the idea behind Fuel Up to Play 60 is to not only getting schools involved in reversing the disturbing youth obesity trend, but getting families involved, those who do the grocery shopping and prepare meals, those who monitor children’s eating habits and physical activity.
Students, educators and supporters who want to get involved with Fuel Up to Play 60 can find a wealth of information and resources, including a free online program for tracking healthy eating habits, at fueluptoplay60.com.