TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — David Kelch and Jonathan Moreno are among the budding gardeners at Challenger Middle School whose labor is bringing healthy results to the south-side school.
They were among nearly 30 students who planted winter vegetables a week ago — squash, cucumber and bell peppers.
Their community garden is for students and their families.
Challenger's garden club, Roots and Shoots, helps maintain the community plot. The plants are on an irrigation system, and the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders check to make sure the system is running correctly, inspect for insects and weed the garden weekly.
The fruits of their labor will go into cafeteria meals for students in December.
Two weeks ago, the students picked vegetables and fruits that included melons, carrots and chiles that were handed to cafeteria cooks to prepare for breakfast and lunch meals.
They are aware of the work first lady Michelle Obama is doing to encourage children to eat healthy food, exercise and keep off excess weight.
Kelch, a student council representative and a wellness advocate, works with other student leaders to come up with tasty and nutritious meals, and they also teach nutrition lessons to other students during first period.
"We prepare healthy smoothies and put fruits and vegetables in them and have taste tests," Kelch said. "We have tried blueberries, cauliflower and kumquats. They are all pretty good," Kelch said.
During Apple Crunch Week, students can drink smoothies made with Red Delicious, Granny Smith and Gala apples. They are provided to students through a grant to buy the fruit, vegetables and yogurt for the smoothies.
The school cafeteria also has a salad bar with a selection of oranges, strawberries, apples and peaches, Kelch said.
The Sunnyside Unified School District has been working for more than a decade to teach students about better nutrition.
Sunnyside has received more than $10 million in federal and state grants, and has partnered with the University of Arizona Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and the Arizona Nutrition Network to implement health and exercise programs in the district, said Jennifer Reeves, an associate research scientist in the UA College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.
Reeves is using Sunnyside schools as models for nutrition and exercise programs in Pima County.
In August, the district received a $2 million Carol White Physical Education for Progress grant to incorporate nutrition, wellness and exercise programs for students across the district.
"We will look at all the health aspects that affect a child and their learning. We want to improve test scores by improving health and physical activity," Reeves said.
This is the third time the district has received the grant. In 2004, it received $1.2 million to work with elementary school students, and in 2007 it was awarded $1.5 million for middle schools.
For Sara Ramirez, a graduate of Sunnyside schools who now works at Challenger as the academic interventionist and health and wellness coordinator, seeing the changes at the school is an emotional experience.
"This is a team effort, and we had our visions of what the campus needed to promote health and wellness," Ramirez said. "We really wanted to mold the lives of our students to help prevent juvenile diabetes and adult-onset Type 2 diabetes."
In 2010, more than 50 percent of the students at Challenger, with more than 900 students, were considered obese.
"This is very disheartening. We needed to teach them about junk foods and processed foods, and what it was doing to their bodies," Ramirez said.
"Now, their thinking and vocabulary is starting to change. You hear them talking about the nutritional values in foods," she said.
Physical education is an elective, and about half of the students take the class for a semester only, Ramirez said. Through grants the school was able to plant trees and create an outdoor learning center for physical activities, including volleyball and weightlifting.
"Physical activity, too, is so important for health," Ramirez said.
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com