Stock photo.

Monday, May 16, 2011 | The Santa Ana Unified School District has been unusually successful at promoting healthful eating habits and exercise for its students, according to a five-year study of selected California school districts released last week.

The success comes despite its remaining among the poorest school districts in the state and is in a city with a severe shortage of parks and open space.

Santa Ana’s 63 elementary, intermediate and high schools participated in a program financed by the California Endowment (the Endowment is a funder of Voice of OC) to promote more healthful diets and exercise. The program began in 2005 in six low-income areas of California.

“A student’s well-being is directly tied to achievement,” said Deputy Superintendent Cathie Olsky. “If you don’t feel good, you’re not going to do good.”

Overall, the report released last week concluded that the healthful eating and exercise program and a separate obesity prevention program in California’s Central Valley, “have made significant changes to their communities — both in the way community members and leaders think about food and physical activity and in expanding the availability of healthy food and physical activity opportunities.”

However, the report said, in order for the gains by the school district to permeate the entire community, neighborhood markets in Santa Ana’s urban core need to offer healthful food choices to the families they serve.

Samuels & Associates completed the report in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley; the Dr. Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health; the UCLA Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Equity; Field Research, Inc.; and Abundantia Consulting.

The school district’s reforms included expanded exercise programs, more healthful choices in its cafeterias, reduced vending machine sales and an outreach effort aimed at teachers and parents.

“Based on the evaluation findings, we believe that school food and beverage environments have achieved a tipping point,” said the report. “Schools across the state and across the country are improving the healthfulness of competitive foods and the quality of school meal programs and adopting school gardens, produce stands and farmers’ markets.”

Olsky said the key to success in Santa Ana was creation of a student wellness department and assignment of an administrator who oversees food and exercise events. The administrator works with parents and community groups like Latino Health Access and the Red Cross.

The administrator “had the authority and credibility” to coordinate school programs with the larger community and demonstrated a commitment by the district to make the program work for its 54,000 students, she said.

Among the gains attributed to the administrator in Santa Ana was a more robust exercise program. Other districts were less successful.

According to the report, the steps used by Santa Ana to increase exercise included increasing the amount of time students were required to spend in physical education classes, adding more training for teachers and hiring four more teachers.

The report observed that “while PE at the primary level was often skipped or minimal,” by the time the program ended in December “classroom teachers were highly trained and led PE on a regular basis.”

Olsky said in recent weeks the district has been training volunteer parents how to help with hula hoop, T-ball, jump rope and other exercises performed by children during lunchtime recesses. Parents are beginning to work together to do exercises themselves, she said.

“Compared to 2005,” the report said, “students reported an overall increase in the amount of time being engaged in vigorous and moderate physical activity, and their sedentary activities shifted, with less time spent watching television.”

After school, Olsky said school grounds are open until 6 p.m. and offer exercise activities for students.

The other part of the five-year program was devoted to encouraging students to eat more healthful foods. The report said all of the groups around the state reported significant gains in healtful eating.

In Santa Ana, the report said, by 2010 “fewer students report purchasing from school vending machines and competitive food sales at schools, as well as from snack carts and fast‐food or other restaurants on the way to or from school.”

At the same time, there was an increase in the number of students who ate the school lunch. More high school students said they ate breakfast, and fewer students said they ate chips or drank soda or sports drinks at school. More students said that while at school they ate fruit or drank 100 percent fruit juices, according to the report.

But the report also said the corner stores and minimarkets are common in low-income neighborhoods and still are stocked mostly with “unhealthy foods and beverages.”

Such neighborhoods are known as “food deserts,” because resident must sometimes travel for miles to find healthful food.

The report said “fundamental changes in the retail environment” probably won’t happen without more pressure on the stores to stock healthful food.

But the report concluded that overall, “the success in schools is spilling over into after-school programs,” and “we have observed significant improvements in foods available and opportunities for physical activity.”

Olsky said continuing the program will require grants, because state funding for education doesn’t always include enough money for programs like physical education.

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