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Cheney schools report decline in overweight students

Officials say the change is thanks to a program that encourages nutritious meals and exercise

All those vegetables, fruits, baked-not-fried potato chips and exercise at Cheney schools may be a rare win in the fight against childhood obesity.

Numbers show a 2 percent drop in overweight and obese students in the past two years. The largest decline is among second- and sixth-graders.

The results are encouraging for the Cheney School District and a local health care foundation trying to cut rates with simple ideas: Cook and serve healthy meals made from scratch, and encourage exercise.

“What I’m pleased knowing – I look across the district, and I look at the number of kids who are eating healthier,” said Laura Martin, Cheney School District wellness coordinator.

“They are eating more fruits and vegetables than ever before. I see our students, from the youngest grade up to high school, taking pride in the fact that they are eating healthier. They get it now.”

The data, though, come with a caveat: The numbers are not definitive. Nor are they consistent.

Kenn Daratha, who teaches bio statistics and evidence-based practice for the Washington State University College of Nursing and University of Washington College of Medical Education and Biomedical Informatics, has been tracking the kids’ progress. For the first three periods of the study there was an increase in obesity, and then suddenly there was a drop.

“This is observational data, and there could be a number of reasons for seeing a drop, and what’s particularly important is replicating the results in similar settings,” he said. “So it’s awfully hard to say with any certainty that what we are doing is the reason for the drop in the mean (body-mass index) and obesity rates.”

Understandably, “we get excited and think we’ve turned a corner,” he said. “I have to remind the people I work with that we need to be cautiously optimistic, because what if a year from now their weight goes up? Then we know it wasn’t our interventions. It was something else.”

Curbing childhood obesity is a public health emergency. More than a third of children across the county are overweight or obese.The numbers prompted the local Empire Health Foundation to invest $1 million in an obesity prevention initiative with six area school districts to reverse the trend. Efforts in those schools include a change to cooking school lunches from scratch, said Sarah Lyman, a senior program associate for strategic grant programs.

Cheney High School sophomore Travis Williams said he never thought the project would work. “Kids are lazy,” said Williams, adding that he also fits that description.

His experience over the course of two years, however, has proven him wrong. “I remember I lost 10 pounds in the span of a month. I remembered how light I felt. I was running, and I was able to run faster and faster.”

Williams has now lost 45 pounds.

Cheney began its partnership with the Empire Health Foundation two years ago. East Valley School District and The Community School in Spokane partnered with the organization last fall. Students in those schools are losing some weight too, Lyman said, “but there’s still more work to do” in all three locations.

From-scratch school lunches include teriyaki chicken with rice instead of a corn dog or cheeseburger. Baked chips and pretzels have replaced greasy potato chips in middle and high school vending machines. Lessons about why certain foods are healthy are being taught in the classroom. Exercise programs and activities are incorporated into recesses and class time.

Cheney sophomore Michael Ferguson said at first the new foods left him unsatisfied, “but now I can get as many fruits and vegetables as I want, which is what I was supposed to be getting, and that fills me up.”

Nationally, more than 31 percent of youths age 10 to 17 are overweight or obese, studies show. The National Survey of Children’s Health places Spokane County and Washington rates each around 25 to 26 percent.

The foundation is committed to working on this issue for at least one more year and possibly four additional years, Lyman said.

Martin, of the Cheney district, said the changes have to go beyond school meals.

Water and 100 percent fruit juices have replaced sugary sodas in vending machines. For classroom parties, healthy options are encouraged, such as smoothies or veggies for dipping or fruit kabobs, Martin said. Recess is more structured, with games that kids of all athletic abilities can play at least twice per week.

At the high school level, the foundation helped buy 22 new exercise machines for a cardio center. The machines are being used before and after school as well as in some physical education programs.

“The cardio room is awesome,” Ferguson said.

Spokane Youth Sports Association will partner with Cheney School District at three of the five elementary schools to offer after-school activities such as soccer, track or Zumba, Martin said.

Also, the district received a federal Farm-to-School grant to buy local produce to feature each month. In addition to children having the opportunity to eat local food, they’ll learn about the food in the classroom, and recipes featuring the item are being sent home.

Health officials will only know over an extended period of time if what they are doing is making a difference in the students’ weight.

“There’s enough information that tells us we should continue the interventions, but it will take interventions in other school districts to see if this is working,” Daratha said. That’s one reason why the foundation is working with numerous schools and districts in the region.

“The intent is to follow students for several years, so we can answer some of the questions about sustained change and the health of the child,” he said. “That’s the potential here. It could be really quite dramatic.”