By Amanda Thompson
Gordon College News Service
March 31, 2010
(This article appeared April 6 in the Boston Globe, Somerville edition.)
Michelle Obama has just declared war on child obesity and Naked Chef Jamie Oliver did his best to start a healthy eating revolution in schools, but some schools in Massachusetts, particularly Somerville and Hamilton-Wenham, started fighting years ago.
“The obesity issue started in the ’70s,” said Mary Jo McLarney, a registered dietician who has been a food service director for Somerville schools for eight years. “But now it’s mushroomed. Everybody is making changes. The most important thing to remember is that change is slow; it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Somerville schools don’t have vending machines. There are no à la carte snacks available during elementary school lunches, and high school students choose from options approved by Massachusetts Action for Healthy Kids (Mass AFHK).
“We want to get kids into the lunch line where they’ll get fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” said McLarney. As a result, fresh foods and whole grains form the crux of the Somerville schools eating program, and next year, McLarney hopes the district will eliminate trans fat.
Students and staff conduct taste tests before anything goes on the menu, and Somerville cafeterias offer different vegetables every month, marketing them with names like “X-ray vision carrots” to bring excitement to the lunch experience.
But students are still allowed treats sometimes like strawberry shortcake. “It’s important to teach them about moderation,” said McLarney.
When Somerville shifted to healthier diets, cooks had to learn new culinary techniques so they would be able to produce more food on-site, with particular attention to using local produce in their recipes. Most of this produce comes from Lanni Orchards in Lunenburg, but some is grown right at the schools by students in an after school program.
In recognition of these efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has presented Somerville with the HealthierUS award for the past two years. The award also acknowledges the outstanding health and physical education programs across the district. It goes to less than one percent of schools across America.
The Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District might not be one of those one percent but the town of Wenham has been recognized for having the lowest obesity rate on the North Shore.
Though many schools may have to scramble to accommodate Mrs. Obama’s news regulation, Hamilton Wenham’s district already has in place many healthy options, according to Catherine Donovan, director of food services for the Hamilton-Wenham district for nine years. For instance, the schools never allowed soda machines. They’ve long adhered to statewide USDA guidelines as well as Mass AFHK recommendations, which are on their way to becoming legislation.
Hamilton-Wenham schools also offer fresh fruit and fresh or frozen vegetables daily. All school lunch calorie counts can be found online, a new sandwich bar has just been added, and students can also purchase vitamin water, Mass AFHK-approved chips, and popcorn.
“We try to give them something they’ll eat and not throw away,” said Donovan. “And we try to reflect in the cafeteria what they’re taught in class.”
It’s a lot to reflect. Hamilton-Wenham schools require health and physical education at all grade levels. Students learn about serving sizes, the new food pyramid, fad dieting, eating disorders, how to read food labels, and local and organic food. But that’s just the main course. Students also take field trips to nearby Appleton Farms in Ipswich, MA, and have the option of taking a chef’s class.
“Eating is one thing, but being healthy is a lifestyle,” said Prudy Pilkanis, who has taught health classes in Hamilton-Wenham schools for 29 years. “We want to teach our students the physical, emotional and social importance of being healthy.”