Alice Campbell Havre Daily News email@example.com
Elementary school students sat at lunch tables in the Box Elder Public Schools cafeteria, with posted signs on the walls that declared: "No pop, Powerade or gum in dining room area at any time," enjoying lunches of salad, fresh strawberries and bread and fresh vegetables on relish trays. Wednesday, during lunch, Box Elder schools were recognized by the Uni t ed Stat e s Depar tment o f Agriculture for the healthy efforts with a HealthierUS School Challenge Gold plaque. Box Elder is one of only eight Montana schools to receive a bronze, silver or gold plaque and the only all- Native American school in the United States to receive a plaque, since the Award's inception in 2004. Box Elder also was awarded a silver plaque in 2006. "I want to tell all of you kids that this is a very big deal," said Jim McDonnell, program specialist in food and nutrition with USDA's Helena field office. It was such a big deal that an aide for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., watched the plaque being presented. The receipt of the award shows that physical education, education and healthy food choices can successfully be combined, McDonnell said. He lauded the food service staff members, teachers and administrators for their work toward the goal of healthier children. The healthier lunches and the signs are just parts of a program for healthier students, thanks in no small part to Kimberly Patacsil, the food service supervisor who makes sure that the students eat healthy foods. One of her nephews died at the age of 19 from obesity, she said, and she's thrilled about the changes in the students' diets and the offering of healthy choices. "These kids won't have to go through that," she said. Patacsil, along with food workers Carol Russette, Linda Duran and Janet Grajeda, work daily to present students with healthy choices of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. It's a school-wide effort. "We all work together as a team in this school," Patacsil said. The physical education teacher encourages the children to exercise more, and teachers educate students about nutrition and health issues, like obesity and diabetes. Kindergarten aide Margaret Jarvey said she sees the choices as a way to help prevent health problems like diabetes. "Native Americans are pretty high on the list of becoming diabetics," she said. Teaching younger generations to make healthy choices keeps them healthy through life, she said. Diabetes awareness has seen a big push in the last 10 years, elementary principal Mark Irvin said, and over the past five years, Box Elder schools have been part of that push. "I think our staff just realized that's an existing need," he said. To help, more activities are being offered, especially ones that the children can play on their own, even if they're not athletically inclined in a conventional way. And teachers are educating students about what things such as diabetes are and why they occur. It's an ongoing process. "I'd say we're still progressing to even try to do more as much as we can," Irvin said. Hopefully, students carry the healthy habits and knowledge they gain in school to their adult lives, Irvin said. "I think kids understand more know why they need to choose different things." Children see parents and friends suffer from obesity and diabetes, Irvin said, which helps brings the lessons home and inspires them to continue making healthy choices. Even the snacks are healthy. It used to be that the students would get crackers or cookies; now they get foods like grapes or carrot sticks, said Irvin. Vending machines, which provide a revenue stream for the schools, have been overhauled to ban sodas and traditional juices, and instead are filled with flavored water, diet sodas and 100-percent juices. "I love it, and I love seeing (students) eat it," said kindergarten teacher Alma Swan about the vegetable trays on each table at lunch. She said she usually makes the students take at least one thing from the tray, but that they're pretty willing to do so and to try new vegetables. Trinity Alexander, a kindergarten student, said she's partial to carrots. Malaysia Philipps, sitting at the table with Alexander, said she likes the strawberries, because they're good for you. Pizza is still the overwhelming favorite of the students, but even that is healthy with a whole-grain crust. What they don't know, won't hurt them, Patacsil said.