Could you identify food groups at the age of 5 or 6?

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Some local students are learning their food groups as early as kindergarten because teachers say it’s best to start early in the fight against rising obesity rates.

Teaching about a proper diet and the importance of exercise has taken on new urgency in Yakima with the release of a survey last week showing that the city is the fourth-fattest in the United States. According to the data, more than one-third of the city’s population is obese.

The rate of obesity is high in local schools. A 2012 survey compiled by Educational Service District 105, in conjunction with a statewide study, found that at least 30 percent of eighth- and 10th-grade students in Yakima County reported themselves as overweight. The percentage of 12th-grade students reporting as obese or overweight was shy of 30 percent. The figures are higher than the state average; about 23 percent of 12th-grade students reported being overweight or obese.

Many schools in the Yakima Valley are trying to stem the rising tide of obesity by promoting a fit and active lifestyle.

The Yakima Herald-Republic checked in with three districts in and adjacent to the city to see what efforts are underway.

Competitive approach

Two weekly physical education sessions of 40 minutes each are not enough for students at Moxee Elementary School to stay active, said P.E. teacher Brian Locke.

As a result, the school offers other opportunities.

During the fall, students in grades 3-5 can form teams in intramural activities and compete against one another. The motivation — besides winning — is a chance to compete against a team of teachers or a team of firefighters. Locke said the competition also builds school pride and sportsmanship.

In the winter, Moxee students take to the classroom for another key component of daily life: understanding what they eat. Through a three-week nutrition unit, each grade level focuses on different aspects of the topic. Kindergartners, for example, learn to identify what certain foods are and which food groups they belong to through the use of “food cards.”

The courses become more complex with each grade level. Instruction eventually reaches discussions of the human bones and the relationship between bone growth and nutrients.

Locke said the goal is to show that more than just exercise is needed to stay fit.

“How do we teach movement but also teach nutrition and the health issues?” he said.

Locke said it’s unfortunate that there isn’t time year-round for nutrition and fitness instruction, especially in the spring, when standardized testing becomes the top priority.

To give students at least some relief, Moxee students can participate in the mileage club, a group that meets once or twice per week during lunch/recess and runs laps around the campus.

Running made fun

Another program that has proven effective is the mileage club in West Valley. Created more than a decade ago by P.E. teacher Susan Braun at Mountainview Elementary School, it is now available at all six elementary schools.

“I didn’t know it would take off,” said Braun, now the P.E. teacher at Cottonwood Elementary. “But when I see the kids running, I realize why I do this.”

In their allotted time, students may choose to walk. But most run — and then some. As of Wednesday, Braun said the approximately 400 students at Cottonwood had logged more than 13,200 miles this school year, meeting once or twice per week. Two of the runners, she added, already have accumulated more than 110 miles each, or about 3.5 miles for every week classes have been in session since August.

Teachers also find a use for the tallied mileage in math exercises, telling kids to graph their results and analyze their progress. Teachers have even integrated geography into the runs and use mileage totals to determine how far students have run in relation to the United States.

“They’re learning that exercise is not a punishment,” said Braun. “It is a chance to better themselves.”

Healthier food choices

In the summer of 2012, the Yakima school board approved a one-year contract with multinational company Sodexo, based out of Paris, authorizing the company to take over as the district’s contractor of food services. The one-year contract has since been extended.

The Sodexo deal was intended to provide healthier options for the students. Whole grains are a staple of school meals — no more white bread. Salad bars are set up in elementary schools. Meat is all low-fat. There are no fried foods or trans fats.

Previously, elementary schools had one or two more entree selections that were more fattening, said Sodexo representative Dan McClain. Today, elementary schools have between four and six options. In the middle and high schools — where there is more building space to offer more food — the number of selections also grew.

Yes, the stereotypical favorites of students — pizza, chicken sandwiches, burgers — remain the most popular choices come lunchtime. But changes to the recipes have made them more wholesome, McClain said.

Pizza is made with whole grain bread, burger meat is leaner, and the cheese used on menu selections is low-fat.

“They can still get items that they want,” said McClain. “It’s just been transformed into a healthier choice.”

During the 2011-12 school year, Yakima retooled lunch menus at Robertson Elementary to be more nutritious, which won an award from the HealthierUS School Challenge, said food service manager Cassie Davidson.

But the district has a way to go, Davidson conceded. Some students are still not accepting some of the items like salads. Others will grab food but not touch it, she added. Complete immersion into a healthier system will not happen overnight.

“It starts with education and teaching them good choices,” she said.