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Maine Schools Stepping Up Efforts to Get Kids to Eat Healthy Foods

Patty Wight

LEWISTON, Maine — You can lead a kid to cranberries, but you can’t make her eat.

As schools across the country step up efforts to provide more nutritious foods to all children, they’re also focusing on ways get them interested in trying them. And it can be particularly important for kids from low-income families, who often lack access to nutritious food at home and are at increased risk for obesity.

In part three of our weeklong series on childhood obesity and poverty, we visit the lunchroom.

(Editor’s note: Part two in the series was For Maine Families Depending on SNAP for Groceries, Every Penny Counts. Part one in the series was Low-Income Maine Children More Likely to be Obese)

Every morning just before school, more than 100 kids pour into Lewiston’s Martel Elementary school cafeteria, hungry for breakfast.

You won’t hear the sound of a cash register here, because breakfast at Martel is free for all students. Since September, in fact, every public school in Lewiston offers free breakfast and lunch to every student under what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision.

The goal is to get more kids to eat school meals because the free and reduced meal program is underutilized. According to the Maine Department of Education, just 40 percent of eligible kids eat free or reduced price breakfast.

“We are seeing an increase across our whole school district — it’s about 20 percent we’re seeing,” says Director of Nutrition for Lewiston Schools Alisa Roman.

Lewiston qualifies for the program because it has a high number of low-income kids. Nearly one in four residents of Lewiston live below the poverty level.

Roman says the Community Eligibility Provision eliminates onerous and embarrassing applications for families who used to have to apply for free or reduced price meals.

“The stigma is gone,” she says. “Like lights are provided for all children and a desk, food is now a part of the educational experience.”

Under the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school cafeterias are directed to provide more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Here at Martel, breakfast includes a whole-grain chocolate oatmeal bar, a cheese stick, a banana and milk. Chocolate milk is allowed, but food service manager Carol Labonte doesn’t serve it.

“I just don’t feel they need the sugar,” she says.

Labonte has also expanded her veggie offerings at lunch. And what’s surprising, she says, is that some students don’t recognize the foods in front of them.

“You’d be amazed at how many kids don’t know what veggies we put out there,” she says. “I mean we have put out cauliflower. They have no clue. Cooked Brussels sprouts? They didn’t know what they are.”

But when kids turn up their noses at a particular item, Labonte seizes the challenge. She persuades kids to try one and report back. Usually, she says, they give a thumbs up.

“We have garbanzo beans — we have started to lightly salt and pepper them, put them in the oven, and roast them,” she says. “My kids are now up to two big cans of that. When we first started, I don’t think there were four missing out of a can.”

But Labonte may be ahead of the game. Some research has shown that while kids are taking more fruits and vegetables at meals, much of that food ends up in the trash. So what’s a school to do? For one, boost marketing.

“Change the names of the vegetables on your salad bar to beautiful beets and x-ray vision carrots, and crunchy cucumbers,” says Dr. Victoria Rogers, director of Let’s Go!, a statewide obesity prevention program.

Let’s Go! works with about 250 cafeterias to help them become “Smarter Lunchrooms” that guide kids to make healthier choices.

“Only healthy foods for snacks and celebrations. Limit unhealthy ones,” she says. “No sugary drinks. Don’t use food as reward. Increase physical activity, and if you do all those things, don’t cost money. No special equipment. But you’re stopping behaviors we’ve all gotten used to.”

Rogers says it’s important to encourage healthy behaviors on multiple fronts.

Back at Martel Elementary, second graders get a once-a-month visit from a nutrition educator in the classroom as part of a federally funded, free program called Pick A Better Snack.

“Today we’re going to talk all about cranberries,” says Katherine Lary of Healthy Androscoggin.

On this visit, Lary is making the case for a snack that’s loaded with fiber and nutrients.

She also offers up a taste test. First, raw.

“On the count of three we’re going to take a bite! One. Two. Three. Nibble!” she says. The kids recoil and make coughing sounds.

The tart, sour taste is a turn-off for most kids. But the dried cranberries Lary offers afterwards are a hit.

“So our hope is to get kids to increase fruit and veggie consumption by trying them here — hopefully going home and saying, ‘I tried cranberries today, can we pick some up this afternoon?’ And trying to get that conversation going between the kids and parents,” she says.

Diet, of course, is only one variable in the complex equation that describes childhood obesity. Exercise is another.

The next part in this series visits one Maine school that uses a unique program to encourage kids to embrace an active lifestyle. Reporting for this story was supported by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.