Health message strong in Mississippi schools

Published 11:56 pm Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sugary, high-calorie snacks are off-limits at Sumner Junior High, so instead of door-to-door candy sales to raise money, students ask their parents to donate $30.

It’s one of many methods the school in suburban Jackson uses to keep students lean. The program also includes streamlined cafeteria meals, low-calorie vending machine snacks, a weight-loss contest for faculty and staff and a council that decides how to promote good eating habits.

The changes, implemented over the past few years, have helped Mississippi be recognized as a national leader in healthy school snacking.

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It’s a welcome change in a state that routinely leads the nation in obesity rates, heart disease and diabetes. State health officials think that track record could be reversed by putting youngsters on the right path early.

A report released this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Mississippi and Tennessee have made the greatest progress in improving nutrition in their schools.

The percentage of Mississippi secondary schools that don’t allow students to buy candy or salty snacks increased from 23 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2008. The percentage that did not sell soda or fruit drinks that are not 100 percent juice increased from 22 percent to 75 percent.

Schools banning the sale of the snacks in Tennessee increased from about 31 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2008. Those that stopped selling the unhealthy drinks went from 26 percent to 73 percent.

Emily Boyd, a 15-year-old Sumner Hill student, said she didn’t quibble when the school began eliminating high-calorie snacks in 2006, though some of her peers did. Boyd said she’s seen the devastating effects of a diet high in sugar and fat up close because her grandfather and aunt have diabetes.

Fourteen-year-old Jamia Brown said she misses some treats.

“I wish they offered Skittles,” the ponytailed teen said.

Principal Willie McInnis said bottled water, juice, nuts and granola generate about $60 a month from the school’s vending machine, down a bit from the former high-calorie selections.

“It’s not a fundraiser for us. It’s more of a service to the kids,” he said.

He said it’s rare for students to sneak in contraband junk food.

Sumner Hill is one of nine schools in the Clinton Public School District. Superintendent Phil Burchfield said the health message is personal for him because he has diabetes. Kaiser Family Foundation statistic show 11 percent of Mississippi adults have been told they suffer from the disease.

Burchfield often tells students about the potential consequences of diabetes, including vision loss, kidney failure or limb amputation.

He said the state’s childhood obesity rate of 44 percent puts youth at a higher risk of developing Type II diabetes.

“And I’m here to tell you, no child should have to go through the daily routines that diabetics have to go through,” Burchfield said in a statement.

School districts began developing wellness policies to comply with the federal Women, Infants and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004. The law required schools to develop a healthy eating plan for students. Mississippi lawmakers later adopted legislation to support the federal law.

“I’m just so excited, you just don’t know,” Shane McNeill, director of the office of healthy schools for the Mississippi Department of Education, said of the CDC findings.

McNeill said the state is conducting research in some of its 152 school districts to determine the effect students’ fitness levels have on academic achievement, discipline referrals and suspension rates.

A survey by the Corinth Public School District that compared health data to reading comprehension “showed a tremendous improvement,” McNeill said.

Mississippi also is a participant in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Ginny Ehrlich, the alliance’s executive director, said the group works in 38 states, but she said what sets Mississippi apart are the guidelines it adopted in 2006.

“It looks like it’s really paid off with a significant change,” said Ehrlich.

She also credited related fitness programs such as a walking group and after-school gym at West Bolivar High in Rosedale in the impoverished Delta.

Terri Curtis, a math teacher at Sumner Hill, said she doesn’t want her students to deal with the problems she had in school.

“I remember worrying about the fit of clothes…and squeezing into desks,” said Curtis. “I wasn’t the best example.”

Curtis has lost 117 pounds over the last 20 months. She runs in marathons with the Mississippi Track Club. Because she is a member, her students can join for free. So far 22 have signed up.

She’s also helping with the weight-loss competition among the faculty and staff.

“Some of the students are hearing about what we’re doing,” Curtis said of the competition. “We’re thinking about offering it to the kids.”