A good kind of “epidemic” is sweeping St. Rita School in Harahan: a “Good Nutrition Epidemic.”
Since the start of the 2016-17 school year, faculty members have been asked to encourage their students to eat healthy foods during the daily classroom snack period.
So it’s good-bye to empty-calorie chips, fruit roll-ups and white grains, and hello to snacks such as yogurt, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables and cheese with whole-wheat crackers.
“The chips are not coming in, so (families) must be getting the hint,” said school parent Angela Baudier, who promotes students’ physical and mental well-being as the St. Rita Home and School Association’s safety and health coordinator.
The decision to encourage the flow of healthy snacks into the classroom – a Home and School Association initiative that garnered the full support of St. Rita principal Miriam Daniel – has been met positively by both students and their parents, Baudier said.
“The school has really raised the bar. The teachers are vigilant about what the parents should and should not send in,” she said.
“They’re staying away from processed foods and opting for natural foods, the fresh foods. We tell students, ‘Try not to bring anything in a box or a bag. Let’s bring in whole fruit.’”
If a child brings in an unhealthy snack, they have the option to swap it out for a healthier snack that is available in the school office.
The endeavor to encourage better snack choices is just one part of St. Rita’s overall commitment to the good health of its students through improved diet and exercise. To spotlight National Nutrition Month, the Home and School Association sponsored a “Nutrition Week” on campus March 13-17.
During the week, St. Rita’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students learned the names and functions of 10 bodily organs with the help of two “OrganWise” dolls named Annie and Andy. Removable plush characters inside each doll are named with young children in mind: “Peter Pancreas,” “The Kidney Brothers,” “Luigi Liver,” “Hardy Heart,” “Windy” (lungs), “Pepto” (stomach), “Sir Rebrum” (brain), “Peri Stolic” (intestines), “Calci M. Bone” and “Madame Muscle.”
“We’ll say, ‘Here are the Kidney Brothers and they’re located here,’” explained Baudier, pointing to her lower back.
To teach children about real kidneys’ need for hydration, the Kidney Brothers are depicted holding glasses of water.
Likewise, Peri Stolic holds a loaf of brown bread to remind young learners of the connection between whole grains and intestinal health, while Sir Rebrum is depicted with eggs – to remind the children of how a good breakfast awakens their brains each morning.
“We like the repetitiveness of the program, because by the time our students get to third or fourth grade, they know what each organ is,” said Baudier of St. Rita’s five years of participation in OrganWise. “As early as the pre-K and K levels they’re remembering the names of the organs and how they’re connected to each another,” Baudier added.
The OrganWise presenter – St. Rita parent and physical therapy assistant Trish Kraus – goes into age-appropriate detail on the organs and their related ailments, such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
“The students learn what makes each organ ‘happy,’” Baudier said. “It teaches them to love their bodies on the outside and love their bodies on the inside. We want them to know even though we all look different on the outside, we’re all the same on the inside.”
During Nutrition Week, students in grades 1-4 also completed the program’s “Choose My Plate” unit on portion control and what a nutritionally balanced plate of food should “look like”: one that includes all the food groups.
Throughout the week, the lessons on healthy food choices, regular exercise and their connection to organ health were reinforced in all P.E. classes. A daily piece of whole fruit was distributed to students in conjunction with St. Rita’s well-known school challenge: “Eat a Rainbow a Day” – or, try to eat multiple colors of fruits and vegetables each day.
St. Rita’s fifth, sixth and seventh graders have an ongoing opportunity to practice good nutritional habits: an afterschool “Fun and Fitness Club.” Each monthly meeting begins with the preparation and consumption of a healthy snack such as yogurt, granola and fruit parfaits, and whole-grain wraps filled with cucumber, spinach and hummus.
“They like anything that they can get their hands on and make themselves,” said Baudier, the club’s moderator.
After snack time, Baudier spends the remainder of the hour teaching a safety-related lesson. Past topics have included self-defense basics, how to handle a bully, Internet safety and pedestrian safety – one of the main lessons of which is to never cross the street while talking or texting on the phone.
The club has invited Father Kenneth Smith, St. Rita’s parochial vicar and a former chef, to its April meeting so members can learn how to marinate, glaze and cook vegetables.
“They’re asking for nutritious snacks and they’re also asking to get involved in the kitchen – they’re saying, ‘I want to make the salad,’” Baudier said. “They want to implement the healthy recipes themselves!”
This year, St. Rita School also decided to ban concession sales of soft drinks at sporting events and sell only water and Gatorade. While typical “fun foods” are still sold at events such as the Pecan Fest, students are taught about portion control.
“You have to explain to them, ‘Everything in moderation,’” Baudier said.
St. Rita School received a grant to bring the OrganWise program to campus. The program includes prizes, DVDs, books and other items that promote a healthy lifestyle to elementary school-age children.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.