TAYLORSVILLE — During class at Arcadia Elementary in Taylorsville, some teachers have started slipping "five-minute" exercise routines between reading and math. Recess time finds children skipping around a track. At lunch, students hem and haw over which nutritious side dish to choose: broccoli or mandarin oranges?
"We're really trying to make things healthier around here," said Terri Roylance, the school's principal.
Arcadia Elementary, along with 373 other local schools, partners with the Utah Department of Health to fight childhood obesity. This year marks one decade since the health department introduced the Gold Medal Schools program, which rewards schools for instituting health-conscious changes on campus.
Health department officials call the program a success — and, indeed, in just 10 years, it has grown to serve more than 202,841 students and 8,871 teachers. But while research indicates those students who participate in the program are more likely to be fit, childhood obesity remains a widespread problem.
Nationally, the percentage of obese children has more than doubled since the 1960s. In Utah, about one in every four students between kindergarten and eighth grade is overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, according to the Utah Department of Health.
"What Gold Medal Schools has done is focus attention on a very critical issue: the health of our kids," said Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay. "What we need to do now is look at both what we are offering them in our schools as far as what to eat, but also the physical exercise they're getting."
Earlier this year, Jones pushed for legislation that would force schools to trade out vending machine soda pop for fruit juice and other healthful beverages. The bill was shot down as being "communistic" but was in line with a national trend toward tighter regulations in school cafeterias. First Lady Michelle Obama, who argues that nutrition has a direct impact on academic performance, has spent the last year lobbying for a federal law that would regulate school lunch offerings in exchange for federal dollars.
"Health in our schools is a problem that needs to be addressed," said Sarah Rigby, coordinator for the Gold Medal Schools program. "We're really proud to see how many schools have taken action."
The Gold Medal School Program aims to make "environmental changes" in the school setting, Roundy said. Schools are rewarded for making changes like building a walking track, writing a policy forbidding teachers to use food as a reward or mandating employee participation in a wellness program. Over the course of five years, schools can earn up to $1,500.
"It definitely changed the way we operate," said Karen Marberger, principal of Cottonwood Elementary in Holladay. "We use activity-based incentives now. Instead of passing out treats, they can earn classroom activities, computer time or extra recess."
The program inspired Orem Elementary principal Brad Davies to lose 100 pounds in 2008. After months of preaching Gold Medal Schools standards to his students, he said, he decided, "as a principal, I need to be an example."
"By promoting eating right, exercising and being involved in activities at recess, hopefully we can instill positive standards of living that will stay with these kids as they get older," Davies said. "Being healthy and fit should be a part of their lives."
In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, University of Utah professor Kristine Jordan found that students at Gold Medal Schools were less likely to gain weight than those at nonparticipating schools. Children at Gold Medal Schools reported drinking fewer soft drinks and walking or biking to school more often.
"It's about making an attitude change," Roundy said. "This is really about educating teachers about little things they can do that can make a huge difference in the long run."
With any change — no matter how small — comes challenge, however.
Under pressure to meet increasingly demanding federal and state academic benchmarks, many schools have cut back on formal physical education classes. While the National Association for Sports and Physical Education recommends schools provide 150 minutes a week of instruction, most schools are only able to squeeze in 30 minutes. Similarly, teachers report, using non-food rewards like computer time or extra recess time detracts from academic study. Treats are easier and — for cash-strapped teachers — cheaper.
"Our kids are so focused on math and reading … that they're missing out on something of equal value," Jones said. "Whether it's running, dancing or some kinds of sport, we should be instilling in our children a lifelong love for physical activity."
Schools also struggle to find a balance between what's healthy and what children like. While class parties at Arcadia Elementary always include a veggie platter (per Gold Medal Schools recommendations), students invariably choose to eat doughnuts instead, Roylance said.
"I wish it was more motivating to students to say, 'If you're good, you'll get an apple,' " she said. "But it just doesn't work that way."
Still, Roylance isn't giving up.
She announced plans last month (to the chagrin of her students) to do away with the traditional 30 minute lunch break, which children split between eating and play as they saw fit. Instead, students are given 15 minutes to play and 15 minutes to eat.
"They're grumbling," she said. "It's cutting into their kickball time."
But, Roylance said, she's already noticing a change in student food choices. Instead of wolfing down three bites of pizza on the way to the playground, students are taking time to look over the fruits and vegetables on the school's "nutrition bar."
"We've got a long way to go yet," she said. "But hopefully, we're establishing patterns that will lead to healthier lifestyles for these kids."