LLE students learn to eat right


News flash: kids like vegetables. If given a chance to try different varieties, children will eat more of them. That’s been the experience at Los Lunas Elementary School, where a fruit and vegetable competition was launched mid-January.

Grade levels are competing against each other to be the first to consume a ton of fruit and vegetables.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Los Lunas Elementary second-graders Alex Baca, left, and Aleigha Romero, right, are learning about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. They are enjoying the school’s fruit and veggie competition which started in mid-January.

School officials didn’t expect the competition to take off as it has, but “a strong 80 percent” of students are eating their fruits and vegetables consistently on a daily basis, said Daniel Martinez, physical education teacher and one of the competition creators.

“We thought it was going to be a very slow process to get everybody on-board, but they all jumped on,” Martinez said. “And then we thought after it got old, we’d see a decline, but still today, they’re eating their fruits and veggies like champs.”

Students are also learning about the fruits and vegetables they are being served, and what nutritional value they have.

“Fruits are better than candy for kids because fruits have vitamins,” said LLE third-grader Jacob Ventura.

Peeling a small orange, second-grader Melissa Lerma said, “It’s juicy inside and it comes from a tree.”

The idea for a fruit and veggie competition started when teachers and administrators noticed a lot of children bringing large bags of potato chips to school. About the same time, students were in a program called, “Organwise,” a program developed by New Mexico State University.

“We were teaching them about their (body) organs and how they work,” Martinez said. “So we used it as a teachable moment because we were seeing more and more students bringing these chips, and it’s not healthy.”

A high priority is given to healthy diets and physical exercise, going so far as having double the PE classes as other schools. They were able to secure grant funding to give the school an additional PE teacher.

Proper nutrition and exercise are critical to children’s ability to learn, said Denise Cannon, the school’s principal.

Cannon and Laura Tabet, the assistant principal, oversee the lunch hour and noticed that students were eating large bags of potato chips rather than their school lunches.

“When they have salads, they’re beautiful salads. It’s just amazing, but kids were throwing them out,” Cannon said. “So, we were trying to figure out how to get them to eat them.”

A collaboration arose between the two administrators and physical education teachers, Martinez and Lyndsie Edwards, to encourage students to eat better.

“We have seen a very big decrease on those chips ― the kids are not bringing so many,” Martinez said. “We’re seeing more kids eating their fruits and vegetables.”

Parents who send their children to school with a lunch are also participating by providing more fruit and vegetables, which count in the competition.

“It starts at a young age when they need to learn how to take care of their body,” said Edwards. “If they start now, then eventually they will always remember to take care of their body.”

Growing children need healthy diets for all of their brain and body functions, Martinez said.

In 2012, the USDA initiated new guidelines that require schools to serve four ounces each of fruits and vegetables at every lunch period.

Los Lunas Elementary is also participating in the afternoon fruit and vegetable program, which introduces children to new fruits and veggies such as grapples, Fuji apples injected with grape juice, snap peas, blood oranges that have a slight raspberry flavor, jicama sticks, broccoli florettes, Granny Smith green apples, minneolas, a hybrid of Dancy tangerines and Duncan grapefruits.

All schools with more than 50 percent of students in the free and reduced lunch program can apply. Currently there are seven elementary schools in Los Lunas that were awarded the grant, said Angela Haney, district student nutrition services director.

Cannon and Tabet walk through the rows of lunch tables with their clipboards to tally the fruits and vegetables each grade has eaten. Each tally mark represents a four-ounce portion.

In the hallway on a bulletin board, tally results are posted so students can keep up with which grade is ahead.

“They’re eating a lot better than they were,” said Cannon. “We’re so pleased.”

The first class to reach the goal wins a fruit and yogurt party as well as a play activity with the PE instructors.

Martinez said he would love for more schools to join the competition. In fact, he would like the competition to spread statewide and even nationwide.

Some of the students’ favorite fruits and vegetables include carrots, raw broccoli, green beans, pineapples and oranges.

“Since we’re feeding them here at school, let’s feed them well,” Cannon said. “We’re responsible for educating them, and kids learn better on a full tummy.”

-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.