Report: State gets low marks for student nutrition and health

nutrition pyramidCaliforina - In a research report released today on the state of students in California's public schools, children's fitness level was targeted as the system's biggest failure.

In the "2006-07 California Report Card: The State of the State's Children," the Oakland-based nonprofit Children Now gave low marks for the state's ability to keep children within healthy weight limits. While after-school programs merited a B+ grade, children's obesity earned a dismal D+ mark. Currently one in three children between the ages of 6 and 17 is obese or overweight, according to the report's analysis.

"It's hard to look at that statistic and say anything other than, 'We've got a crisis on our hands,'" said former state Assemblyman Ted Lempert, now the president of Children Now. He said the grade was actually an improvement over last year's D assessment.

Across the Bay Area, schools have scrambled to find new ways to improve the nutrition and fitness of students struggling to meet health standards.

Last year's statewide physical fitness report showed only about 26 percent of fifth-graders meeting minimum fitness standards in the six areas tested. In Santa Clara County, roughly 63 percent of fifth-graders were in a "healthy fitness zone" for aerobic capacity, considered the most important category, while in the Oakland school district, only 49 percent of students met that goal. Nationally, 24 million children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight or at risk of being overweight, according to the American Heart Association.

Local educators have stepped up efforts recently to address the problem by making school lunches more nutritious.

"There's been a real effort statewide to bring more fresh fruits and vegetables into school lunches," Lempert said.

In October 2005, the Chez Panisse Foundation provided a grant to the Berkeley Unified School District to hire professional chef Ann Cooper to overhaul school lunches.

"Since Ann's arrival, we have made tremendous progress," said Carolyn Federman, the foundation's director of development, noting that salad bars have been introduced in all of the district's schools. Fresh fruit is now served with each meal and 95 percent of processed foods have been removed from the menu.

In San Mateo County, hand puppets introduce school kids to broccoli, zucchini, bell peppers and spinach, among others, at Veggie Fairs. Free classes for teenage girls discuss nutrition through a spa concept.

"We don't talk as much about cancer and heart disease. We talk about maintaining healthy weight and skin," San Mateo County Public Health nutritionist Lydia Guzman said. The county also offers free counseling to parents on nutrition, physical activity, and "keeping down the amount of time spent watching TV."

"We encourage parents to make sure their children eat breakfast," Guzman said.

Nadine Burke, medical director of the Bayview Child Health Center in San Francisco, said that parents are key in creating healthy "food environments."

"If you know that food is unhealthy for your child, don't bring it home," said Burke, who coached Chris, a young contestant on the Nickelodeon reality show, "Let's Just Play Go Healthy Challenge."

"Chris lives in an area of San Francisco that's pretty underserved. We met with the director of his school's cafeteria and talked about ways to change the menu: more salads and healthy snack foods," Burke said.

In Santa Clara County, the Palo Alto school district's focus on nutrition translated into better scores on the fitness test, with nearly 78 percent of fifth-graders and more than 87 percent of seventh-graders achieving aerobic fitness.

Associate Superintendent Gerald Matranga said changes have been implemented since December 2004, when the school board banned trans-fats and reduced the sugar content of school lunches.

"We now serve nutritious pizza with whole wheat crust, low-fat cheese and low-sodium tomato sauce," Manager of Auxiliary Services Kathy Durkin said. Cookie recipes have been changed to include less sugar and fat.

"The new cookies were well received by all the students ... more kids are eating at school now than they were before," she said.

source Palo Alto Daily News