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Howard County schools' emphasis on healthful eating earns national honor

ConsumersNutritionU.S. Department of AgricultureFitness

Students at Howard High School emerge from cafeteria lines with plates as green as well-manicured lawns. They reach for steamed broccoli and fresh lettuce as quickly as they do macaroni and cheese and popcorn chicken. And they say they their healthful eating habits extend beyond school hours.

"Away from school, I'm a big burger guy," Howard High senior Joshua Steward said. "And a burger, you know what color it is. So I try to make it greener, stacking on lettuce, tomatoes, everything to make it healthier, and it always turns out great."

School districts across the country aim to serve nutrition-conscious menus that appeal to students' palates.

But at Howard High, students are products of a system that made healthful nutrition practices as applicable as anything taught in a classroom, and it's among the reasons that the Howard County public school system recently was honored with a U.S. Department of Agriculture award for promoting healthy school environments.

The school system was awarded the USDA's HealthierUS School Challenge's bronze-level award for scoring high marks in school nutrition programs, physical education and physical activity in all of its 73 schools.

Howard's is the first school system in the state to earn distinction from the HealthierUS School Challenge since the program began nine years ago, school officials said. It was among only four districts in the state with any schools honored.

Mary Klatko, the school system's food and nutrition service director, said Howard County works closely with bakeries and other companies from which they buy food to determine the most healthful options.

Klatko said each school will receive a plaque and banner recognizing the award, while the nutrition and food service department will receive $36,500 for having all schools gain bronze-level status. The awards aren't a matter of ego — they are a way to emphasize for students the importance of the program, she said.

"Students will know the school is doing a good job of making sure they have standards and opportunities to stay healthy," Klatko said.

The criteria for the bronze award included having schools offer at least three different fruits each week on three different days for breakfast, offering a combination of greens, beans and peas in certain amounts for lunch, and providing physical activity opportunities each day — outside physical education class — for full-day elementary students. The guidelines also require that schools not deny or require physical activity as a means of punishment.

Howard County schools offer fresh fruit and whole-grain foods every school day, Klatko said, and in cafeterias, poster boards relay nutrition information about every item on the school menu.

Klatko said first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign also led Howard County students to focus school projects on nutrition and healthful living. She said students learn about nutrition in family and consumer science classes, while many teachers incorporate it in classroom instruction.

She said even math teachers get in on the act, encouraging students to visit the website schoolmenus.com, which lists menus of schools across the country

"If you click on something like 'peaches,' it will tell you all the nutritional values for it," Klatko said. "A math teacher will say, 'OK, kids, go on today's menu and you find everything you're eating. If you're having chili and peas and peaches, you add up all the things you have and tell me how many calories do you have.' "

The students also can add up amounts of carbohydrates and sodium to determine other health aspects of their meals.

Howard High sophomore Katherine Elicker said she remembers the school system emphasizing healthful eating as early as her middle school years — and the message caught on. For others, it came later.

"At the beginning of the year, they told us we had to come out of the line with a fruit or a vegetable, something green on the plate," Howard High senior Breccan Fischer said. "It wasn't really a forced thing. It was really the motivational push that we needed."

Senior Laura Harrison was home-schooled until she was in the 10th grade, and said that before coming to Howard High, she had vegetable-filled meals during the school day. That hasn't changed, she said — except for one condiment.

"The only thing bad [about the school menu] ... is that they don't give us salt," Harrison said as she and others pointed to salt shakers that students have brought from home since table salt was removed from the school menu.

"It's kind of hard," she said, "because we felt that instead of being encouraged to manage our salt intake, it was just taken away."

Janey Thornton, USDA deputy undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services, presented the school system with the HealthierUS School Challenge award at a recent school board meeting. She said about 214 schools statewide and about 5,000 nationwide earned the certification.

She said it shows communities are embracing healthful eating habits and encouraging students to do the same.

"It takes people in grocery stores, people in restaurants and people in schools to understand that if we're going to have healthy kids … we all have to take part in that responsibility," Thornton said.

"Sometimes we have to do things that aren't popular at first, but after they adapt, they say, 'You know, this wasn't so bad,' and it's probably is best for our kids," she said.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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