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Fourth-grade girls demanding healthier school food
By Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff

Jade Walker, left, and Camryn Hickle, watch as Erica Smyth reaches for her homemade peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich during lunch hour this week at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Third- and fourth-graders this week line up for prepackaged, processed lunches at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach. Three fourth-grade girls are pushing for healthier food options.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 4/14/2010 4:14 PM

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First lady Michelle Obama and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver aren't alone in trying to get children to eat healthier in the United States.

Three fourth-grade girls are leading the charge at Avon Center School in Round Lake Beach. The girls recently met with Avon Principal Lynn Barkley, and their concerns were relayed to the Grayslake Elementary District 46 school board.

Greasy hot dogs and hamburgers are just part of the problem, said Jade Winter, 10, of Round Lake Beach, who helped to write a letter to school officials with complaints and suggestions on healthy food options.

"When they do give out salad," Jade said, "there's only a few scraps of lettuce."

Barkley said Jade, Camryn Hickle and Erica Smyth are passionate about trying to get healthier breakfast and lunch options to students. She said she was impressed with how the girls requested an appointment to meet with her.

Jade said the idea arose when she and Camryn were at lunch one day and looked at greasy burgers and hot dogs.

"We just decided the food was pretty unhealthy," she said.

Although Jade, Erica and Camryn are now taking their lunches to school so they can eat healthy, that's not the case for many Avon students.

Roughly 475 students attend the school, which serves kindergarten through fourth grade. Barkley said 37 percent of Avon's students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Up to 200 lunches are served depending on the day, with pizza and chicken nuggets as the most popular choices.

District 46's food provider, Preferred Meal Systems Inc., is meeting federal nutrition guidelines with its breakfast and lunch offerings, officials said. Arthur H. Bell, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Preferred Meal in south suburban Berkeley, didn't return messages seeking comment.

District 46 board President Mary Garcia said, as a result of the girls' concerns, officials plan to meet with Preferred Meal about putting fresher, healthier food in the schools.

Camryn, whose homemade lunch this week had fresh apple slices and a peanut-butter sandwich on wheat, said children should eat healthy so they can develop a good habit that carries into adulthood. She said Avon's food selections aren't helping her peers.

"We only have white bread," said Camryn, 10, of Grayslake. "We want whole wheat bread."

Erica, 9, of Grayslake, said salads can be improved by placing sizable portions of carrots on lettuce.

Obama is on a campaign against childhood obesity and is stressing how youngsters need more fruit and vegetables. Oliver, as part of an ABC television show, has been in Huntington, W.Va., showing how freshly prepared vegetables and meat are healthier than processed, fat-laden school meals.

Avon's meals are processed and prepackaged. Food is heated in ovens owned by Preferred Meal.

In a letter signed by 11 other Avon students that included a slash over the words "junk food," the girls said more protein and fresh fruit are needed at lunch. They said lunches shouldn't have so much grease, and Cocoa Krispies are inappropriate for breakfast.

"If children keep eating like this," the girls wrote, "those children won't live a healthy life!!!"

Lake County Health Department community dietitian Toby Smithson said she was pleased to hear of the girls' effort.

While outside food services have become necessary, she said, schools should consider creative ways to get more fresh produce on students' plates.

"The earlier we do change our habits with healthy eating, the better outcomes we'll have," said Smithson, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Roughly 30 percent of children in the United States are considered overweight or obese, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.