By Joyce Coronel
Connie Allen, the physical education teacher at Mariposa School in Tempe, noticed when she would walk through the lunchroom that students’ diets were not exactly exemplary. Chips, cookies and not-so-healthy foods caught her eye.
Now, as part of a wider commitment to helping students live a healthier lifestyle, “Eat Well Wednesdays” has become a weekly feature at the K-5th grade Kyrene school.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Wrangler News was on the scene to get the story about the renewed focus on students’ health. While some already were busy eating their lunch, others lined up for a salad bar that featured fresh broccoli, carrots, cucumbers and persimmons.
“They have all these assortments of vegetables and fruits at the salad bar, and things they don’t usually eat,” Allen said. “We are encouraging them to pick something different.”
For those adventurous enough to do so, prizes await at the school’s Better Bites store, where children can redeem coupons for “eating the rainbow.” In other words, filling their plates with the many colorful shades of fruits and vegetables and then crunching away on them.
One boy, a fourth-grader, held a plate loaded with broccoli, carrots and whole grain bread. He said his parents encouraged him to make healthy choices. “I need to grow more and my parents always told me that I have to eat my vegetables if I want to grow.”
His friend, a girl named Emmy, said much the same. “I want to be able to grow and stay healthy. It makes me feel better and more energized,” she said, adding that she also enjoys P.E.
It’s all part of the Fitness for Life program at Mariposa.
“We really believe in the whole child,” Allen said. It’s not just about teaching the brain, but seeing the entire person. The school, she said, touts a saying that, “We’re smart and fit.” Four times a year they celebrate a Wellness Week that includes every child and staff member.
“We have all these activities we’re all focusing on and it’s not just one classroom or a grade level. It’s unified and it’s beautiful,” Allen said.
“It really makes kids—when they see their teachers and the staff and all the other kids doing it—it really puts healthy living in the spotlight and showcases it.”
The program also meets all the national standards, Allen said. That’s a good thing because, according to the Children’s Action Alliance, an Arizona children’s advocacy organization, the state’s obesity rate for young children rose above the national average back in 2000, peaking at 14.6 percent in 2008 and falling only slightly since then.
Programs like the one at Mariposa are working to help children lead a healthier lifestyle in the hope that kids won’t suffer some of the cardiovascular and other diseases that until now were the domain of the middle-aged and elderly.
For example, on a Friday before Halloween last year, when children—and adults—would be expected to load up on sweet treats, Mariposa students had something else going for them: Get Fit Friday, featuring a pumpkin walk.
“Research has shown that movement helps the brain to get more focused. So that’s the beauty of these activity breaks. Plus all the messages about eating healthy, staying active. This is just a great program.”