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Students brace for greener lifestyle

| Friday, June 30, 2006

Cupcakes are out, and broccoli is in.

This fall, school districts will have to serve healthier foods and encourage physical activity for students, employees and the community. Local districts have adopted wellness policies required by state and federal law.

The policies include eliminating snacks and drinks that have a lot of sugar.

Thirty percent of Westmoreland County children and slightly more than 30 percent of Fayette County children are overweight, said Wendy Huffman, secondary school nurse at Southmoreland School District.

"Being overweight makes them more prone to hypertension, diabetes, heart problems and musculoskeletal problems. It's important to give them information on nutrition and physical activity," Huffman said.

And the sooner students receive such information, the better.

"Elementary kids are so pliable about nutrition. We get them at that age, and they're health customers for life," said Judy Siebart, a dietitian with Adagio Health, of Uniontown.

Siebart has been working with Connellsville Area, Uniontown Area, Laurel Highlands and Brownsville Area school districts to enact wellness policies. So has Steps to a Healthier PA, which also helps Frazier School District.

While most aspects of the policies must be up and running by Nov. 1, many school districts already have health-enhancing practices in place.

"We have had no soda machines available to students for more than six years," said Terry Struble, Mt. Pleasant Area High School principal.

Everything with sugar as the first ingredient was removed from snack lines last school year. Struble said high school students can select fresh foods from a daily salad bar and buy deli sandwiches. Dessert choices often feature fruit or carrots with peanut butter.

Mt. Pleasant Area Junior High students have had a physical fitness center for three years, where they compete to increase personal fitness.

"We have added equipment for grades seven through 12 and are working on a physical fitness center near the high school," Struble said.

He is pleased with the direction the district has taken and continues to take.

"We've had some people with foresight. We do consider it a key part of what we do. If kids are not healthy, they're not in school. If they're not in school, they're not learning."

Southmoreland already has a community health council. The wellness legislation requires districts to have wellness committees, and the district involves not only students, staff and parents, but community members and medical professionals.

Southmoreland's cafeterias already serve healthy foods, and hand sanitizers were added to cafeterias last school year. Secondary teachers will add intramural sports in homeroom, and elementary teachers will encourage aerobic activity during recess.

"All our projects are a group process, from students to administrators. It's a group effort," Huffman said.

Connellsville Area School District students will be encouraged to be more physically active, said Gloria Clawson, food service director and school health liaison. She will facilitate teaching students, employees and the community about nutrition and physical education.

"I started changing menus last year, and we took pop out of the machines last year," Clawson said.

Healthy food will be required at parties and fundraisers during school hours.

"Hopefully it will carry over to non-school times," Clawson said.

Frazier is likewise already complying with most nutrition guidelines.

"Nothing is going to change with the menu," said Suzanne Boni, food service director. "We're already offering healthy food. Snacks and ala carte selections will be healthier. Vending machines are still there, but we will change selections. We never had any carbonated beverages at all."

The Uniontown Area School District will remove sugared sodas from its machines and stop serving candy and cookies. Nurses will teach wellness classes, and all students will have more opportunities for physical activity. Nurses will also measure students' body mass index, an indicator of health based on height and weight, and tell parents if their children seem too heavy or too thin, said school Director Susan Clay.

"It's going to be broccoli at birthday parties," said Charles Machesky, Uniontown Area superintendent. "The wellness policy will have a tremendous impact. We can do all we can do at school, but we have to hope it carries over to children's homes."

"We couldn't ignore this epidemic of obesity," Siebart said. "Besides, when students are well nourished, they learn better."

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