Durham schools boost anti-obesity effort

Apr. 04, 2014 @ 09:42 PM

As director of child nutrition for Durham Public Schools, James Keaten is transforming cafeterias into places where fresh fruits and vegetables are replacing junk food.

What may be surprising is that students, for the most part, love it.

Even salads offered in middle schools are being snapped up.

Keaten knows that if students don’t like the food offered, they won’t eat it. So he tries to make it tasty and interesting.

He plans new things, like bringing in exotic foods such as kiwi, star fruit and jimaca. 

The jury is still out on whether students are losing weight, but Keaten said survey cards from students are mostly positive, except for a beef pot pie that got thumbs down and was quickly deleted from the menu.

Ten years ago, most fruits and vegetables offered to Durham students came out of cans, lacking the nutritional value of fresh food and packing sodium and sugar, Keaten said.

The cafeteria is a different world today.

Watermelons, strawberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes, kale and collards often are on the menu. Breakfast tarts are, too, but Keaten replaced the unhealthy version with a whole-grain type that’s low in sugar.

In fact, all snack items are now whole grain with reduced fat and sodium. Baked corn chips have muscled out the unhealthy nacho cheese variety.

Fried foods are quickly disappearing. They’re already gone from all Durham elementary and middle schools, and no longer will be offered at high schools after this school year.

The schools have piloted a universal free breakfast program for all students. The effort began with 11 schools and has expanded to 22. By next year, Keaten hopes to offer free breakfast at every school.

There’s also a new twist on school breakfast.

Instead of requiring students to eat in the cafeteria, students can go straight to their first class and eat breakfast during announcements without interfering with instruction time.

“So they get a meal even if they’re late,” Keaten said. “Teachers say the kids are settling down faster.”

Even better is that twice as many students are eating breakfast under the new program. “In the past, breakfast in the cafeteria was rushed,” Keaten said. “This is more relaxed, and every child gets to eat.”

New changes to old favorites are a hit, such as sloppy joes. They’re now served on a whole-grain bun, with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Flavored milk – loaded with sugar – has been dropped, and strawberry milk will be gone next year. But students are passionate about their chocolate milk, so that will remain, minus the high-fructose corn syrup.

Bottled water also is available for those who want to skip sugary drinks.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in kids choosing fresh fruits and vegetables,” Keaten said. “I want the kids to have the things that they like and still eat healthy.”

Another important part of the anti-obesity fight is exercise, and the schools are making that a top priority.

At least 30 minutes of daily exercise at school is required for those in kindergarten through eighth grades. That can be done all at once or spread through the day.

“Some do it at recess, and some do school-wide walks,” said Kate Turner, wellness coordinator with the Durham Public Schools.

Others might exercise to a DVD  or streaming website in the classroom. For younger children, “wiggle time” lasting three to five minutes keeps them from having to sit still for an hour or more.

“Kids love it,” Turner said. “The feedback I’ve gotten is that it’s often used as an incentive. So instead of using food as a reward, kids will get extra physical activity time – like a dance party on a Friday afternoon, or extra time outside walking as a group. It’s looked at as fun.”

Turner said moving toward a healthier school system means making good habits easier to adopt.

“We all know that we need to eat healthy food and exercise,” she said. “But the strategy is to find ways to build it into the environment.”