Denver Public Schools ready to answer parents' call for healthier food -- in 2015

At a Denver Public Schools event about so-called "health justice" earlier today, Alicia Leon, a Denver single mother of four, said the challenge of living healthily is simple: Processed food is cheap, available, and easy to prepare, while fresh produce and healthy meals are expensive, harder to find, and time-consuming to cook.

"I don't want my kids to go through the same thing I went through," Leon, 34, who struggles with obesity, told Westword. "Once you get off-track, it's very hard."

That's why she's hoping that DPS will seriously consider the policy recommendations she presented at North High School with advocacy group Padres Unidos.

After surveying 476 Denver parents, the organization released a health-justice report featuring several key recommendations for school reforms that parents believe will help their children eat healthier and be more physically active.

And there's good reason for parents to be concerned: In Denver, 34 percent of children are overweight or obese, and two-to-fourteen-year-old children from low-income families in Colorado are three times more likely to be overweight than higher-income students, the group reported. Latino children are also three times more likely to be overweight than their white peers. These trends are often associated with early health problems, such as developing high blood pressure, sleep disorders, difficulty focusing in class and low self-esteem. Unhealthy diets and inadequate physical activity can also pave the way for life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease later in life.

"We need a sense of urgency...there is a lot at stake," said Monica Acosta, the group's health-justice parent organizer, who presented the report to panelists, including DPS reps. "In the movement for health justice, low-income communities of color should be at the forefront."

The report, based on outreach work with parents, focuses on three recommendations: moving recess before lunch, expanding in-classroom breakfast, and increasing scheduled physical activity in schools.

The report notes that students don't tend to rush or skip meals when they have recess before lunch -- and they eat more nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and milk. They also have fewer behavioral problems in the afternoon, and teachers can gain ten-to-fifteen minutes of instructional time with a smoother transition from lunch to the classroom. In addition, breakfast in the classroom offers some obvious benefits, including a drop in tardies and enhanced focus and participation among students who take advantage of the day's first meal.

DPS officials in attendance, including John Simmons, the executive director of the student services division, said that they are on board with the plan and supportive of the advocacy group and its ideas.

"What I was struck by was the similarities of our DPS Health Agenda 2015," Simmons said, holding up a copy of the plan, which focuses on several areas, including nutrition, physical education and emotional wellness.

"You want the same things we want, so this aligns perfectly," added Theresa Hafner, executive director of food and nutrition services at DPS, who said that there are now salad bars with fresh fruits and vegetables at 83 elementary schools.

But after the event, Leon, who is a parent leader with the group, told Westword that while she's glad DPS officials are working on this, she doesn't really understand why the plan is for 2015.

"By then, my fourteen-year-old will be graduated from high school," she said. "That's too long. Why does it take four years?...They are trying, but they're not trying hard enough."

We asked Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent of post-secondary readiness for DPS, what he thought about this concern, and he said these things just take time.

The system is not a top-down one, and thus schools and their leaders need time to buy in to the initiative and give input, so that it will be effective when it's introduced, Wilson said, adding, "Like any plan, we want to make sure its implementation is thoughtful and thorough."

More from our Education archive: "Test cheating? DPS asks state to review state test scores at two schools for possible cheating."

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Sam Levin
Contact: Sam Levin