SALT LAKE CITY — A portion of the Salt Lake City School District lies in what administrators call a "food desert," where the closest stores are convenience stores and it is somewhat difficult for families to get to a supermarket to buy food.
"We're running breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner programs in these areas," said Cynthia Talbot-Holz, coordinator for the district's community learning centers.
Emergency food assistance programs are provided for many students and their families on the west side of the city, Talbot-Holz said.
"There's a lot of stuff these kids are dealing with," she said. "If you're not meeting the basic needs, you cannot be ready to learn."
The area of the city most affected by the scarcity of fresh food — from Rose Park south to Glendale — has some of the lowest levels of fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity in the county, as well as obesity rates that are up to 10 points higher than the state average of 24.4 percent, according to recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention School Health Index.
"There are a lot of barriers our students and their families have to overcome," Talbot-Holz said, adding that the kids are not as healthy as they could be.
Enter a grant of $529,811 from the U.S. Department of Education that will help pay for programs to meet the needs of these Utah students and their families.
"A healthy, active lifestyle is an important ingredient of academic success," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a news release Tuesday.
The Carol M. White Physical Education Program grants divvied more than $33 million awarded to 67 education agencies and community-based organizations across the country. Each aims to boost existing resources "to help schools and communities develop programs that teach students the importance of staying active and developing healthy lifestyles," Duncan said.
"We need more states, districts, schools and communities to recognize the critically important role of physical education in improving student engagement and achievement," he said.
The department pointed to research that shows kids learn better when they are active.
The money will be spent over the next three years in Utah to carry out and enhance the Let's Get Fit to Learn program at five elementary schools where community learning centers are also located — Glendale, Mountain View, Rose Park and Lincoln community learning centers, and Riley and Meadowlark elementary schools.
"It allows us to extend the program that focuses on gardening, health and wellness, physical fitness, nutrition and healthy eating," Talbot-Holz said.
In addition to community gardening education already in process, the centers plan to teach courses on healthy food preparation, including foods from around the world, as the communities involved are largely made up of ethnic minorities, she said.
Other facets of the program include training educators how and when to include quick breaks for energy bursts during and throughout academic lessons, as well as providing more opportunities for kids to take part in organized and educational playtime outdoors and aside from traditional physical education classes.
Talbot-Holz estimates the program will serve 2,800 children and their families in the first three years and more than 12,000 other students in years to come as educators learn the program and carry it to other elementary schools in the district.
"It is all part of understanding if we're moving a community toward a healthier state — not just physically, but socioeconomically and academically, paving the way for a better future for our communities," she said.
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