She believes in the power of good nutrition to help students learn. She believes in the power of eating right to cut down on discipline problems. And she believes that getting kids to change their tastes to actually want to eat healthier food in school is a challenge, but worth the effort in the long run.
Butler should know: She created the first sugar-free school in the country at Browns Mill Elementary and Magnet School in Georgia, just outside Atlanta.
That was 11 years ago. Butler was already seeing a rise in childhood obesity, and the national rise hasn’t stopped. In 1985, only 17 percent of adults were obese; that increased to 34 percent in 2007 and 40 percent in 2010, she said. Similarly, only 5 percent of children ages 6 to 19 were overweight in 1985; that increased to 19 percent in 2007 and 30 percent in 2010.
“It was our mission to target healthy behavior because we were already seeing some things,” Butler said. “We went in to improve nutrition and physical activity.”
The school removed all the processed and fried foods and adults modeled the eating behavior by consuming the fruits and vegetables they wanted the children to eat. Each morning, they start the day with dance and Butler makes sure the students in her school get regular physical education and plenty of it.
The benefits are more than just health. The children’s weight dropped and test scores rose. Discipline referrals also dropped when the sugar was removed, she said.
“We focused on changing the environment, the school climate and home climate,” said Butler. “We believed that if we changed the way kids ate, we could change the information they were receiving.”
The program has been replicated in several Georgia schools, and results have been similar, according to Butler.
But change isn’t easy.
British chef Jamie Oliver took his “Food Revolution” to Huntington, W.Va., and failed to satisfy the tastes of youngsters accustomed to high-fat and processed foods. Central City Elementary School Principal Patrick O’Neal credited the lukewarm response to what the kids were used to eating.
Changes in West Virginia’s schools that came about as a result of adopting the Institute of Medicine’s new school nutrition standards, however, have had some lasting effects, according to Carole Harris, co-director of West Virginia University’s Health Research Center, which conducted a study of school success in serving students food with less fat and sugar.
Butler and Harris agree the schools are a good place to start children on the road to healthy eating, but it doesn’t end there.
“The goals are to create environments that support healthy choices and that provide an appropriate environment for nutrition and physical activity,” Harris said.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign strives to help states, schools, communities and parents to do just that.
“Thirty-one million American children participate in federal school meal programs—and many of these kids consume as many as half their daily calories at school,” Obama said in an interview for the September/October Capitol Ideas. “What we don’t want is a situation where parents are taking all the right steps at home—and then their kids undo all that work when they get to the school cafeteria. … Let’s help parents help their kids.”
The first lady is also supporting reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act.
The reauthorization proposal includes an increase in federal reimbursement for school meals to help schools offer more fresh produce, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, among other things, according to Nancy Rice, president of the School Nutrition Association.