By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - Students at Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools will continue to pull their belts in next year - or so school leaders hope after holding meetings in May to plan the next phase in their fight against obesity in schools.
Proposed changes for next year include eliminating candy from the school store at Rocky Boy, offering a vegetable bar and a la carte items like yogurt and subs in the lunchroom, structuring recesses to encourage more exercise, adding activities like yoga and tai chi to classroom activity, and ditching soft drinks in favor of bottled water and real fruit juice.
The healthier agenda, a continuation of changes made at the schools this year that included bringing more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer prepackaged foods like pizzas and burritos into the lunchroom, were the result of brainstorms by teams of teachers, administrators and principals. Four Rocky Boy teams of about 10 members each met on May 20, and a team at Box Elder School met the next day, said Rocky Boy nutritionist Tracy Burns, who attended and guided both sessions.
"I expect there to be lots of hurdles," Burns said. "I'll be busy for the next year trying to implement all these things."
The teams' decisions were more than just gestures, Burns said. School principals, the food service director, and the director of the student store attended the Rocky Boy meetings, along with about 40 teachers. The Box Elder meeting was attended by Box Elder Superintendent Robert Heppner and Wes Fehr, the principal of the middle and high schools, Burns said. Tribal Chair Alvin Windy Boy Sr. came to the meetings and spoke in support of the changes, she said.
"These are the people with the power," she said.
Catching the wave
Similar changes are being made all over the state, said Katie Bark, a nutritionist who helps train school districts to become healthier as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's School Nutrition Program. Bark said she has worked with big schools like those in Bozeman and Great Falls and smaller ones like Libby.
So far schools are mostly on their own, Bark said, deciding for themselves which changes to make and getting help from parents, tribal associations and even students. Aside from a few tokens - the USDA ban on items like soft drinks and candy being served during meal times by schools participating in the national school breakfast and lunch program, for example - there are no real laws restricting the kinds of foods served in schools in Montana, Bark said.
That may be changing, she said. This spring the Legislature passed its first-ever resolution on school health. Senate Joint Resolution No. 2, passed in April, requires the state superintendent of schools to send suggestions to every school district about proven methods for helping their students become healthier.
Many schools are making the changes on their own, and the payoff is not just in health. Kim Anderson, principal of Whitefish Central School, said behavioral problems have plummeted at his school since diet changes were initiated three years ago.
The middle school removed all pop and candy vending machines and eliminated those items from the school a la carte menu. In their place were put machines with juice and water, and one with healthy snacks like yogurt and string cheese.
The school also moved recess to before lunch. Anderson said that before that change was made, students would spend as little as three minutes eating and then bolt for the playground. Now they play on the playground for 22 minutes and then come to the cafeteria for 23 minutes.
Before, Anderson said, the students weren't eating much, and what they were eating was often pop and candy. "They were going back to the classroom on this sugar high," he said. "We were seeing most of our discipline problems and referrals 90 minutes after lunch. Then there's a real crash," he said, and students struggle to keep from falling asleep.
Anderson said the results have been startling. A year and a half ago, the school gave six to eight discipline referrals a day to students for disruptive behavior. Now, Anderson said, teachers give out between two and four a week, a drop he said is directly related to what the students eat.
"We're seeing a drastic change because they're not eating those things anymore," he said.
The kids continued to use the vending machines as much as they had in the past, he said.
"Kids at this age are going to eat and drink whatever's in front of them," he said. "When you put healthy things in front of them, it's often a real life-changing thing."
More inviting lunches
Schools in Ennis used to see an exodus every lunchtime. About 160 students - more than half the student population of the middle school and high school - used to leave, said Doug Walsh, superintendent of Ennis schools.
There were safety issues, Walsh said, and even two accidents. Last fall the school board closed the campus. In the middle of October they took away driving privileges at the high school.
"We thought there would be an uprising," Walsh said. "Once we did that, we knew we needed to do something for our lunches." The school added a deli bar and salad bar, and rotated items like pizza, soup, tacos and stuffed potatoes. They began baking fresh bread every day and expanded the breakfast program. The uprising did not occur.
"Our cost went up a little bit, but we got about 100 more kids a day," so the school broke even, Walsh said.
Rocky Boy officials said older students can be a harder sell.
"They made us go on a diet," said Rocky Boy sixth-grader Lee Nepoose. He sat with a group of friends who were eyeing their lunch trays, decked with vegetable sticks and cups of diced mango.
Classmate Sheldon Coffee said he doesn't like wheat bread, the bread of choice in the lunchroom since this fall. His grilled cheese is covered with it.
Blaze Stump said he doesn't mind the carrots, but he hates the spinach. Sixth-grader Cecilia Gardipee adds cabbage and Brussels sprouts to the list of offending vegetables that have sprouted in the Rocky Boy cafeteria this year.
But they get yogurt now, Nepoose observed, and that's good, as long as it isn't the fat- free stuff.
When soda became rarer in school vending machines, the students bought Powerade, Fruitopia, lemonade and water. Coffee said at first he was mad, but he got used to it.
And beneath their chagrin, these students are old enough to see the sense in the changes.
"There's too many young kids getting diabetes," said Coffee. "They don't want us to get it." Four of the five students said they have relatives with the disease.
The younger students are easier to please. First-graders in Susan Sutherland's class are shy. They huddle around their teacher at the lunch table and nod demurely that they like the new kinds of fruits they have been fed this year.
"The change I'm seeing is, at first these kids were a little picky about foods, but as the year's gone on, they're eating and trying a lot of the foods now," Sutherland said. "By the time these guys are in the junior high and high school, I think they will really be used to this. They will be used to eating healthy meals, and I really do believe we'll be seeing healthier kids."
The changes need to be made, said Derek Small Sr., the high school basketball coach, as he wiped down the tables after the students left. But, he said, the schools can't be the only one involved.
"It always boils down to parent involvement," Small said. Native American culture presents a special challenge, he said.
"In our culture, if someone puts something in front of you, you're supposed to eat," he said.