PT Schools Wellness Committee marks its goals

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With only three members who were able to attend, the Port Townsend School District’s Wellness Committee was able to take stock of a number of concrete steps it has made toward achieving its goals.

Stacey Larsen, director of food service for the school district, presided over the Sept. 18 meeting and noted that a number of committee members were only absent because they were coaching school sports, thereby fulfilling the district’s aim of student wellness through other means.

Larsen reported to fellow committee members Karen Obermeyer, health educator for Jefferson County Public Health, and Julia Russell, dean of students for Blue Heron Middle School, how the district’s back-to-school training Aug. 28 had included talks with teachers about nonfood-based rewards for students.

Larsen cited Peter Braden, a first-grade teacher at what was Grant Street Elementary, as a positive example, for providing fun activities for children on their birthdays, rather than relying on the old standby of serving them cupcakes.

For such alternatives to succeed, Obermeyer emphasized all teachers must be made aware of why it’s important not to use food as a reward, to avoid fostering unhealthy eating habits, as well as providing elementary through high school teachers with age-appropriate alternatives to food rewards they can use with their own students.

When Obermeyer advocated highlighting teacher success stories such as Braden’s, Larsen pointed to the superintendent’s newsletter as one outlet.

Moving through the Wellness Committee’s strategic plan for 2018 through 2021, Larsen summed up its goals as not only increasing physical activity, but also promoting more nutritious foods through programs such as “smart snacks” and the school garden on Blue Heron’s grounds.

Obermeyer joined Russell in touting the district’s more aggressive inclusion of physical education in students’ schedules, especially in the middle school grades, and complimented the district for taking the step of hiring a consultant to ensure its physical education program is up to snuff.

“Before, seventh- and eighth-graders weren’t getting PE throughout the school year,” Obermeyer said. “These kids need activity every day to keep their brains optimal.”

To that end, Russell also lauded the district’s embrace of bicycle-to-school days at least twice during the school year, which Larsen suggested the Wellness Committee could further promote by connecting with Parent Teacher Association members.

Obermeyer presented free and reduced-price school meals as another means toward student wellness, calling for anyone who’s eligible to be enrolled in the program, not only to help those kids eat healthy meals but also because the district itself is reimbursed for doing so.

Larsen observed the Port Townsend School District and the local chapter of the YMCA are both in danger of losing their qualifications for certain types of outside funding. While she said, “I’d like to believe it’s because less people need to apply” for those free and reduced-price meals, she sees the need as being just as high as ever.

“Obesity actually goes up during the summer, when kids don’t have access to school lunches,” Larsen said. “We thought kids would be more physically active, but it turns out they’re eating more junk food.”

Just as important, to the minds of the Wellness Committee, is giving students sufficient time to eat their meals.

Larsen cited the four lunch periods employed by Salish Coast Elementary as one method to shorten the amount of time students spend waiting in line to receive their meals so that they can finish eating, while Russell noted that younger students can’t be afforded too much pre-recess time in cafeteria spaces after they’ve finished eating.

“They don’t know how to just sit and socialize,” Russell said. “It can turn into a powder keg.”

For that reason, Russell supports leaving the doors open between students’ recess and lunchroom spaces, while Larsen pledged to sit in during the meal period of all the district’s schools and measure on the clock exactly how long it takes each group of students to be served and eat their meals.

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