Schools add two Es to three Rs

Exercise and eating right will be emphasized

by Bret Yager
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

The Department of Education is ramping up efforts to get students to eat healthy and exercise, which means kids can expects some changes to their meal trays starting this fall.

At least half of the starches offered at school cafeterias next school year must be made of whole grains, said Kenneth Ortiz, child nutrition specialist with the DOE.

The DOE began implementing a host of food and exercise policies last year. Schools have four years to meet new federal guidelines aimed at making exercise and healthy foods a part of life for school-age kids.

Schools around the state -- and nation -- were required to start committees last year to oversee health issues, create wellness policies and make sure new wellness guidelines are implemented.

New requirements also include at least 20 minutes of recess each day, nutrition education for staff, and nutrition guidelines for food served on campus.

"It's a change of environment," Ortiz said. "Though we do teach health education and nutrition, if we don't provide an environment to practice it, it doesn't reflect well on us."

Guidelines require that food at schools -- even items sold for fundraisers or snacks given as rewards -- have no more than 8 grams of total fat per serving.

"That's the big one; a lot of schools had questions about that one," Ortiz said.

Food cannot contain more than 2 grams of saturated fat, any trans fat, more than 200 calories or eight grams of sugar. Servings must contain more than 2 grams of dietary fiber. Drinks -- except milk and water -- may be no larger than 12 ounces.

The guidelines apply to all schools that participate in the federal School Lunch Program. Vendors here and across the country are revising their offerings to meet the new requirements, Ortiz said.

Nutrition information for all products offered at school must be available near the point of purchase, and all meals must be made from fresh, local and minimally processed fruits and vegetables, to the extent possible. Schools will also push to make sure kids have a meal through the School Breakfast Program.

"There are lots of studies showing that students perform better when they start the day with a healthy meal," Ortiz said.

And while recess has, historically, been driven by the recognition that teachers need a break, "finally, there is somewhere on paper that students also need a break," Ortiz said.

Schools have been complying with the mandate to create health committees -- often doing so through existing school community councils and safety committees, Ortiz said.

Educators agree the challenges of eating well -- and the temptation to grab something quick but not healthy -- have only increased.

"Often times, there's fast food available, a convenience store right next to the school, and kids have a Slurpee for breakfast," said DOE spokesperson Sandra Goya. "We want kids to take what they learned home with them."

The DOE is highlighting the healthier approach with a Department of Health partnership that will give $2,000 to four Big Island schools. The money comes with a challenge to keep sending messages to students on healthy eating and exercise. New this year, the Healthy Hawaii School Challenge is designed to reward schools that have already made strides toward implementing healthier policies, Ortiz said.

School were picked for having programs like gardens integrated with nutrition education, hydroponic farms, parent volunteers who lead kids on walks to school, and morning exercise programs.

Keaau, Keonepoko, Waiakeawaena elementary schools and Connections Public Charter School were selected for the grants, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition program and the DOH Healthy Hawaii Initiative Tobacco Settlement Special Fund. Fifteen schools were chosen statewide.

"On the Neighbor Islands, we've been noticing that a lot food service managers come from hotels and private industries, so they're well experienced," Ortiz said. "If they hear we're switching to whole wheat next year, they've already done it."

Connections Director John Thatcher said his school works to make kids aware of health issues, including a program called Developmental Approaches in Science and Health, for K-6 students. Many of the school's science projects have a health component, he said, like the sixth grade mission to Mars project in which kids have to come up with foods that could be grown and eaten in space.

Thatcher said the school may use the grant for a food tasting party aimed at getting the kids to try healthier dishes.

"If you can just get them to try something healthy," he said.

"(Eating healthy) is a challenge for all of us," he added. "Parents are working. For all of us, it's a question of healthy versus what's quick."

Thatcher said the school believes in eating locally grown food whenever possible.

"We firmly believe the Big Island should be the bread basket of the state," he said.

The downtown Hilo school hopes to lease 20 acres of Kaumana land from the state for a demonstration farm.

"We may be able to develop an ag program and perhaps move part of the school up there," Thatcher said.

Gary Yanagi, PE teacher for Waiakeawaena, said he and cafeteria manager Clyde Takahata team up to try to bring more exercise and healthy fruit and vegetable snacks into the school. The cafeteria serves half brown and half white rice cooked together, trying to get away from refined starch foods that have been robbed of nutrients and fiber, he said. Yanagi also promotes walking contests at the family, faculty and complex levels.

"What I push is exercise, eating healthy and the proper amount of sleep," Yanagi said.

E-mail Bret Yager at


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