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HealthBeat

HealthBeat: Local schools, organizations work to get kids to eat right 

  • Faye Allaire, who called herself "unofficially the salad bar queen," restocks the salad she pre-made during the first lunch at Pembroke Academy on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Allaire, who has worked at Pembroke for the past eight years, said the system use to be unorganized. "Salad was everywhere," she said. They use to have a large bowl filled with lettuce and it would spill or get dropped. Now pre-made by Allaire with fresh vegetables, the salads are served in plastic containers and the protein portions are controlled.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Faye Allaire, who called herself "unofficially the salad bar queen," restocks the salad she pre-made during the first lunch at Pembroke Academy on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Allaire, who has worked at Pembroke for the past eight years, said the system use to be unorganized. "Salad was everywhere," she said. They use to have a large bowl filled with lettuce and it would spill or get dropped. Now pre-made by Allaire with fresh vegetables, the salads are served in plastic containers and the protein portions are controlled.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • The cafeteria staff at Pembroke Academy is a tight-knit group who celebrate Halloween together by dressing up for the day, and three of the women share the same birthday. Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    The cafeteria staff at Pembroke Academy is a tight-knit group who celebrate Halloween together by dressing up for the day, and three of the women share the same birthday. Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Faye Allaire, who called herself "unofficially the salad bar queen," restocks the salad she pre-made during the first lunch at Pembroke Academy on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. Allaire, who has worked at Pembroke for the past eight years, said the system use to be unorganized. "Salad was everywhere," she said. They use to have a large bowl filled with lettuce and it would spill or get dropped. Now pre-made by Allaire with fresh vegetables, the salads are served in plastic containers and the protein portions are controlled.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • The cafeteria staff at Pembroke Academy is a tight-knit group who celebrate Halloween together by dressing up for the day, and three of the women share the same birthday. Denise Nedeau of Pembroke Academy recently won a regional award for Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for the staff improving the salad bar.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Not all salads are created equal.

In fact, in the eyes of the national School Nutrition Association, Denise Nedeau, kitchen manager at Pembroke Academy, has created some of the very best salads of all.

Nedeau was announced earlier this month as the regional winner of the association’s Leadership Excellence in School Nutrition for doubling student use of the school salad bar while also reducing waste and calorie counts.

In years past, the salad bar was a realm without rules, where students could build their own meals: piles of veggies crowned with heaping servings of chicken, tuna, cheese and other protein-rich toppings. But their eyes were often bigger than their stomachs, and the lettuce and veggies were often left for the trash.

On top of the waste, the nutritional value of the multiple servings of protein the students helped themselves to concerned Nedeau.

“When you get too much, you think you’re getting a healthy meal, but if you’re adding way more than the portion allows you, you’re not getting something all that healthy anymore at all,” she said.

So with a pile of single-serving size containers, Nedeau created a system that presented students with containers filled with lettuce and as many as six daily options for their salad, from popcorn chicken to taco meat, from barbecue chicken to tuna fish. The rest of the salad bar is still open, so they can add as many tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, olives, banana peppers, and other veggies as they like.

“They like to grab and go, they don’t want to take the time to pick through lettuce,” she said. “Some kids, especially the big football kids, want to add as much as they can so they still ask for more. We tell them they can add as much vegetables as they like, so they’re still getting a big salad if that’s what they want.”

Between 20 and 30 students would frequent the salad bar each day before the change. Now, it’s common for 60 and even as many as 70 to pick up a salad to go, Nedeau said.

So use is up, waste is down, and the kids are eating more vegetables.

In Bow, healthy snacks

Allison Niedbala, nutrition director for the Bow School District, has also launched a new program to give her students more healthy choices. Her inspiration came not from watching veggies go to waste, but from the day she brought her car to the garage.

While waiting at the Grappone dealership, she noticed a vending machine full of low-calorie choices, like pita chips and nuts, and asked the manager for the vendor’s contact information. Three weeks ago, ecovending installed a machine at Bow High School, and this week, the company will put one in the middle school, too, Niedbala said.

“It’s not a money-maker for me in my department, per se, but it does provide the option for them, especially after school,” she said. “That after-school activity crowd is the audience we really wanted to reach, to make sure they had something available. We did a vending machine before, but it did have decent stuff, not the quality that we have now.

“I’ve been here for 14 years and if you don’t keep changing along with things, if you don’t go out and pursue other things, the program gets stale. My goal is every year to do something new and spice things up.”

Empowering kids, families

The road to childhood obesity may start years before kids ever enter a school, though, says one national expert coming to town tomorrow.

Matt Longjohn is head of the YMCA of the USA’s Chronic Disease Prevention Programs and oversees development of the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program. He’s also a former primary care physician who left medicine because he wanted to start treating the chronic diseases he was seeing “upstream.”

“It’s incredibly rewarding to be a physician, to be face-to-face with an individual on the bed side, helping them get through whatever their current health crisis is,” Longjohn said in an interview last week. “The challenge that ultimately got me moving out of clinical medicine, was that too often you see the same people back again, 60, 90 days out for the same problem.

“It’s not because of lack of trying, not for lack of understanding. . . how they might change a diet and lifestyle, but our environments are just toxic. It’s incredibly difficult to find access, to afford and build into your routine healthy behaviors.”

He left his practice 12 years ago, and spent the past decade working with several nonprofits in Chicago before joining the national YMCA.

While previous generations may have seen the YMCA as a place to get fit, Longjohn is now part of a movement for Y’s across the country to be engines of health in their communities for members and nonmembers alike.

Tomorrow at the Concord City Auditorium, he’ll be talking about childhood obesity, in particular efforts that can start years before walking to school and serving more vegetables at lunch.

Research has shown that by the time kids are 4 years old, their behaviors and their biology can already be set to increase their risk of being obese, he said.

Families can work at home on improving those odds through steps like breast feeding infants, providing toddlers an abundance of fruits and vegetables, and choosing dairy and water over sugary drinks, Longjohn said, but “families also need to figure out how to advocate for themselves in their community.

“It’s clear the earlier we start the better, starting with making sure that hospitals and workplaces are promoting the opportunity to breast feed for new moms,” and advocating for a focus on healthy behaviors in the early child-care system, he said.

“What we do through the Y doesn’t have to just stay at the Y,” he said. “We’re empowering kids and families to take some initial steps and work with partners in their communities to not just lead healthy lives for themselves but make the kind of change that would benefit everybody.”

Longjohn’s talk is free and scheduled to be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Audi tomorrow.

(This is the first edition of a column that will appear in Your Life every week. We’ll be talking about health care, healthy living, research, and anything else that comes up. Have an idea for a column item? Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)

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