During lunchtime at Ralph Williams Elementary in Viera, cafeteria manager Jamie Skinner helps kindergartners and first-graders through the line, making sure each one takes a helping of fruit or veggies. Skinner is Brevard’s 2017 Employee of the Year. (Photo11: Caroline Glenn/FLORIDA TODAY) When I was a kid in first grade, I despised gym class.
The bullies called me "Tubby." That hideous, one-piece uniform exposed my fat arms and legs. Usually the last one picked for a team, I felt slow, awkward and clumsy. Those embarrassing moments made me want to run home. And eat.
My obese mother had little interest in a healthy lifestyle. Basically, she was a binge eater and couch potato. Not surprisingly, watching her shaped my own eating habits, in a bad way at first. A bag of cheese doodles would disappear in one sitting. The same with potato chips, cookies, pistachios, ice cream, you name it. We didn’t have much money. But we always had junk food.
Could her blood pressure or cholesterol have ever been normal? It isn’t now based on the list of medications she’s taking after years of little exercise and an abundance of unhealthy eating.
She lovingly referred to my excess weight as baby fat. To be fair, back then, there probably weren’t nearly as many lessons about childhood obesity or nutrition. Terri Friedlander (Photo11: Terri Friedlander) As a parent, I promised not to let my own children succumb to such bad habits. As a teacher, my buttons would be pushed every time a bully would mock a classmate laden with excess pounds.
February is American Heart Month, offering all the right reasons to take care of our bodies and especially our heart. This month, FLORIDA TODAY featured many articles about avoiding heart disease with low-fat diets and regular exercise. While directed to adult readers, the worthwhile advice applies to all ages. Studies indicate nearly one in five school age children in the United States has obesity.
A few years back, school districts began to change the way they did things in the cafeteria. A food and nutrition manager was hired. Several taste tests began with the students themselves. New products were pitched and recipes changed. Samples were given free to students to obtain their verbal feedback.
Suddenly, the school lunch line began serving turkey burgers, breakfast sliders and buffalo cheese crunchers. Today’s menu has a whole new look with a new list of healthy options and more fruits and vegetables. Calorie counts are posted online at the school’s website. Soda and other sugary drinks were banned during the academic school day. Even the ingredients in the pizza have changed.
In elementary school, my daughter remembered how she loved the tacos. Now those tacos are prepared with whole grain flour tortillas and reduced-fat American cheese. Chicken sliders are breaded with whole grain and served on whole grain slider rolls. Guess what type of bun is featured with those new turkey hot dogs? At some schools, soybutter replaced the old favorite peanut butter and jelly.
Combined with these wholesome choices, physical education requirements were stiffened.
As the saying goes, "we are what we eat." In my case, good eating habits did not start at home.
Luckily, school districts have taken major steps forward to serve nutritious choices. Living a healthy lifestyle is a vital ongoing lesson with lifelong benefits for every growing child’s heart.
Terri Friedlander is an educator, parent and author of the new coming-of-age novel "The Dorm." She can be reached at www.terrifriedlander.com .
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