These days, the treat jar in Grace Tischer’s fifth-grade class at St. Joseph School in Penfield isn’t filled with candy bars. She instead tries to fill it with 100-calorie packs of graham crackers and other snacks.
Parents also are asked to send their children to school with healthy food for their daily snack, she said. Fruit or vegetables are popular, as are dry cereals.
These are just a few of the ways that Catholic schools are attempting to prevent obesity and promote healthy lifestyles among their students.
"Sometimes I look at their lunches, and sometimes they are not good," Tischer said. "Other times you can see a parent is trying to help them have a good diet."
Not only are Catholic schools putting an emphasis on healthy lifestyles, but New York’s governor is as well. One out of every four New Yorkers 17 years and younger is obese, said Gov. David Paterson in his State of the State address Jan. 7. He noted that childhood obesity can lead to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and can increase children’s risks of future heart attacks, strokes or loss of limbs.
"Obesity not only blights our children’s futures — it creates a significant economic burden on our health-care spending," Paterson said. "New York spends $6.1 billion to treat obesity-related health problems — the second-highest level of spending in the nation."
In addition to proposing a ban on junk-food sales in schools, Gov. Paterson proposed expanding the Healthy Steps to Albany Initiative this month to challenge middle-school students from five more cities, including Rochester, to eat right and exercise.
According to personnel at several area Catholic schools, it’s an initiative that’s already caught on locally. For example, in gym classes, the emphasis is on promoting active, healthy lifestyles rather than turning students into star athletes, said Tim Kuhmann, physical-education teacher and athletic director at Brighton’s Siena Catholic Academy.
"I want the kids to be able to successfully participate in sports and know enough of the rules to play those sports and be active," Kuhmann said.
The prevalence of television watching and playing video games in which users are sedentary are reasons why obesity has been increasing in today’s kids, Kuhmann said. Yet he said he’s a fan of fitness video games that require active participation in sports or dancing.
"Technology is such a big part of our lives, that if there is a way to incorporate it to get kids more active, I’m all for that," Kuhmann said.
Childhood obesity is a big concern, and is one that prompted St. Rita School in Webster to ask parents to stick to only healthy treats for birthdays, said Allan Mutrie, physical-education and health teacher at the school. However, Mutrie noted that families should not become preoccupied with a child’s weight.
"They are young and they haven’t really grown into their bodies yet," Mutrie said. "Sometimes we get wrapped up in exact pounds. Just getting out and getting some activity is a good start."
Kuhmann said he gets his gym classes moving through such traditional sports as soccer and lacrosse, by completing fitness testing and by learning such skills as orienteering in the outdoors.
Recently students also learned what it’s like to play sports while having a disability: They played floor hockey while simulating having a visual impairment. In gym class, students also experienced what it’s like to have one form of autism, Kuhmann said. He said they took part in an exercise in which one student read an article aloud while other students tried to distract the student through noise and other means.
The goal, Kuhmann said, is to get students to become more sensitive to people who have disabilities.
"I try to focus on what their abilities are, even with their disabilities," he said.
Mutrie noted that being healthy is not just an assessment of one’s physical health, but also includes mental, spiritual, social and emotional health. He said he tries to get students in his fifth- and sixth-grade health classes to identify and improve upon areas of all these types of health. He said students may decide to increase their flexibility or improve their organization, and afterwards Mutrie asks students how their well-being has improved.
Catholic schools’ focus on wellness and healthy living is not just limited to gym class. As part of St. Joseph School’s 17-week Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, in addition to learning about what alcohol, tobacco and drugs can do to a body, students learn about how to respond to peer pressure and how to stay healthy, Tischer said.
"(A local police officer) talks to them about making healthy decisions and gives them a decision-making model," she said.
The result, she said, is a student equipped with tools to stay healthy in the future.