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Schools will reward kids who make good choices at lunch

By CAROLYN THOMPSON
Associated Press Writer

November 8, 2004, 3:24 PM EST

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If a healthy heart and smaller waistline aren't incentive enough for kids to eat healthy foods, maybe a bracelet or key chain will do the trick.

That's the idea behind a program to begin in Buffalo schools that will give tangible rewards to students who choose fruits and vegetables in the lunch line.

Planners don't want to scare students with what are legitimately scary facts _ that overweight children can develop diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones and other life-shortening problems.

They do want to instill better food choice habits, along with a more positive attitude about good nutrition as a way to combat childhood obesity.

As part of the districtwide effort, students will be taught the benefits of eating better, that it improves academic performance, energy levels, etc. But there will also be an immediate reward in the form of a prize at the end of the week for students who have put things like carrot coins and kiwi on their trays.

"With the kids, what we're trying to do is just incentivize them and educate them and make it fun and engaging," said Gretchen Fierle, interim executive director of the P2 Collaborative of Western New York, a coalition of managed care organizations and community leaders coordinating the program for Buffalo's 31,000 K-8th graders.

The six-week, $450,000 program, called "Be a Power Eater: The Good Food for Great Kids Program," also has a research component. Different twists on the basic program will be tried out at various schools to see what works best. At some, students will be asked to sign a personal promise to eat healthier, while at others schools will compete with each other for a $2,000 prize to stage a health-related event.

"At the end, we'll report back to schools to say, when you're trying to influence attitude and behavior, here's what tends to work," Fierle said.

An estimated 16 percent of American children are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. A September report from the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said that over the last 30 years the rate of childhood obesity has tripled among youngsters aged 6 to 11 and has doubled for those aged 2 to 5 and 12 to 19. Among the report's suggestions was that schools provide healthier food.

The food services director for Buffalo Public Schools said schools will order additional produce to offer a wider array in the lunch line, with the costs largely offset by the grants from the state Health Department and local foundations that are funding the program.

"We'll try to feature different varieties of fruits or vegetables that we don't normally serve either because they are labor intensive or they might be a little bit more expensive," Bridget O'Brien-Wood said.

So instead of just pineapple cubes in line, students might see kiwi and pears as well.

"We're hoping instead of taking pizza and milk, they will take more items," O'Brien-Wood said.

Students will be encouraged to continue their healthy habits at home, where the school-based program should be viewed as a beginning, not an end, Fierle said.

"It's really scary when researchers are now publicly coming out and saying that if we continue doing what we're doing, a child born today will be the first generation ever in U.S. history not to live as long as the generation before them," she said. "And it's all preventable. That's horrifying."

The program is scheduled to begin in each of the district's 56 schools in January.