It is lunchtime for the early grades at Hickey Elementary School at 3111 Cora Ave. in north St. Louis.
Kindergarteners and first and second graders get their trays of food and sit in rows at long lunch tables. A quick glance reveals a surprising predilection for salad and bananas.
Before this fall, prepackaged food was the norm. Now the school cooks hot lunch items on site.
“This is so much better,” says Hickey Elementary Food Service Director Margarita Hall. “They can get all they want off the salad bar.”
Hickey Elementary’s physical education teacher, Fabian Turner, agrees.
“I’m lunch monitor every day in the cafeteria for the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades. And I want to say that about 95 percent of our children these days eat salads,” he said.
The children also eat a fresh fruit or vegetable for afternoon snack three days a week in a program that he started last year, Turner said. The afternoon fruit and vegetable snacks are available to all schools in the district but must be initiated by a physical education teacher.
AIM for Fitness
M. Leanne White is a former physical education teacher and now director of the AIM for Fitness grant at St. Louis Public Schools. She says that the departments of nutrition and physical education are working with classroom teachers to address the problem of overweight and obese children.
“We’re not working in silos. We’re working together now,” she said. “Part of our goal for this grant is to try to increase physical activity at school.”
The $2.2 million, three-year grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and focuses on fourth and fifth graders. The program is now in its second year. Partners such as Washington University School of Medicine, BJC School Outreach (providing nutrition education), and Jackie Joyner Kersee are also involved. Kersee recently appeared at Hickey Elementary to raise awareness and enthusiasm for the program.
“We’re trying to provide information with students and the parents that eating and making the right food choices in life make a difference,” says White, who is also using the grant to implement a new physical education curriculum.
In the classroom
In a fifth-grade class at Hickey Elementary, the students are exploring health through various channels. Students' posters on making healthy choices hang in the hallway, and the students have lots to say about what they’ve learned.
“At home I used to eat junk food and chips, but now I like to eat vegetables like broccoli,” says fifth-grader Alexus. And she doesn’t wait for her mother to cook for her but prepares the vegetables herself.
“It has changed my life,” says Devion, another fifth grader. “I used to just hang around the house playing video games and now I play more sports.” He says he now plays football and baseball at Matthews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club.
“If you eat unhealthy food you can block your gallbladder,” says Jasonie.
Kyra, a shy girl dressed in a pink velour track suit, says that she plays more sports now, such as volleyball and kickball.
(Hickey School asked that the students be identified by first name only).
Turner said that the students are excited about the AIM for Fitness activities.
“Right now, the 4th and 5th graders are wearing pedometers. So they wear their pedometers all day long, and they also use a Jackie Joyner Journal. At the end of the day they put down what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner in their journal, and they also record the amount of steps that they’re doing each day in AIM,” said Turner.
“Some kids have been doing extra laps around the field at recess time, around the track,” he said.
The grant has also allowed the district to purchase heart rate monitors for the children, body composition analyzers to help them compute body mass index, and lots of physical education equipment and computer programs that the whole school uses. Physical education teachers are getting professional development from Washington University School of Medicine Department of Physical Therapy, giving them ideas to use for all the grades.
“We’re educating the physical education teachers on the benefit of moderate to vigorous physical activity and health consequences,” said Susan Racette, associate professor of physical therapy and medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. She and colleague B. Ruth Clark, associate professor of physical therapy and teurology at Washington University School of Medicine, are partners in the grant.
Let's get physical
More physical activity is needed at school because current physical education requirements set by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are not enough, says Racette .
The state mandates 150 minutes of physical activity a week, she said.
The schools can "count the 20 minute recess period that occurs daily. That’s 100 of those 150 minutes. So that leaves 50 minutes of physical education per week.”
While some smaller schools, such as Hickey Elementary, offer two 45-minutes physical education classes in a week, many offer only one. And in that class the students may be learning about health and not actually doing exercise.
One way in which the schools are trying to increase physical activity is through the use of “brain breaks,” short bursts of activity once a day in class that give students a chance to get up and move around before settling into another activity, Clark said.
While schools are trying to increase physical activity, that is not the only area that needs improvement, say Racette and White. According to Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, children and adolescents need 60 minutes of “moderate to vigorous” physical activity every day.
According to their measurements, only 20 percent of children in the AIM for Fitness program are getting that much, say Racette and Clark.
Reasons for the shortfall are as complex as each child’s life, they said, and can include living in an unsafe neighborhood or not having the money to participate in extracurricular sports.
But one thing is certain: Children need to be active outside of school as well as in school.
Surprising prevalence of extreme obesity
In their work with the St. Louis Public Schools, Racette and Clark have found a slightly higher rate of obese and overweight children than the national average. In measurements from 2010, Clark and Racette said that over 40 percent of children were characterized as obese (a body mass index greater than 95 percent on CDC growth charts) or overweight (with a body mass index of over 85 percent on CDC growth charts) as compared with the 2009 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in which 33 percent of school age children were either overweight or obese.
What surprised Racette and Clark was the prevalence of extremely obese children and adolescents.
“We saw many that were above the 95 percentile. That’s very hard to reverse,” said Clark.
Clark and Racette have other ideas about how to work more exercise into the school day.
“One of the things we would love to see are opportunities for children to get 10-20 minutes of activity before the school starts,” said Clark.
And they deplore the practice of taking physical education and recess away from misbehaving students.