Harlem School Gets High Health Marks

Monday, January 16th 2006, 9:41 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Sixth-grader Essence Holmes ate her chicken and rice but shoved the medley of zucchini, red pepper and broccoli to the side of her plate.

``I don't eat vegetables,'' she said firmly. ``They're nasty.''

That is one of the challenges facing Promise Academy, a charter school in Harlem that is trying to fight the rising tide of childhood obesity by serving food that is nutritious, low fat and, when possible, locally grown.

Lunch might be turkey chili with brown rice and braised red cabbage. The milk, from upstate New York, is free of hormones and antibiotics. The juice is 100 percent fruit juice, and just one serving is permitted. Dessert is an apple.

As educators around the country struggle to provide healthful school lunches _ and to get junk food-happy children to eat them _ Promise Academy is taking an unusually aggressive stance.

It not only bans sugary snacks but offers healthy cooking classes for parents and sponsors a monthly farmer's market where a voucher buys a big bag of Hudson Valley carrots or winter squash.

``I think it's what we have to do at every school in America right now,'' said Ann Cooper, who is the director of food services for public schools in Berkeley, Calif., and helped set up Promise Academy's food program. ``The level of quality of the produce, the level of quality of the cooking, the minimal use of processed food, the use of locally grown food as much as possible is where every school in America should be.''

The food program is only one distinctive feature of Promise Academy, where the school year and the school day both have been lengthened to prepare children from low-income families for good colleges and good jobs.

The school started in 2004 with 100 kindergartners and 100 sixth-graders. It's plan is to expand by two new grades each year until it runs from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The lunchtime scene is more upscale dining than rowdy school cafeteria. By now, the students are all used to no dessert except fruit, so there is little grumbling about not being able to eat candy bars.

The whole facility is shiny and new, and the kitchen is spotless. To promote good manners and respect, the children eat at round tables with tablecloths, and all are neatly dressed in school uniforms.

The academy is a project of the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit organization that runs a range of programs including parenting classes, preschool, asthma screening and job training with the aim of bettering the lives of people who live in a 60-block swath of central Harlem.

Geoffrey Canada, the organization's president, said children resisted the academy's food at first and some parents complained that their children were starving.

``Getting young people to just try things and keep an open mind about it I think is the challenge,'' he said. ``Because we don't allow outside food in, it allows young people to get naturally hungry. ... Kids don't want apples if they can have candy bars. But an apple when there is no other sweet thing around absolutely tastes good.''

The black community served by the Harlem Children Zone's programs has struggle with obesity and its attendant ills of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. A 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 78 percent of black women ages 20 to 74 were overweight, with more than 50 percent qualifying as obese.

``When I was growing up in the Bronx, being fat was unusual for a child,'' Canada said. ``People made fun of you. Now, about 45 percent of our kids are overweight. One looks no fatter than the next.''

Students at Promise Academy are weighed at the beginning and end of the year, and Canada hopes to build a database that will let researchers measure how successful the school has been at keeping its charges fit and trim. He said it's too soon to tell if the school has made any headway.

On a recent day at the school, students lined up with trays for the entree, then hit the salad bar, where the choices included romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, grape tomatoes and curried chicken salad.

The kitchen staff of six is headed by chef Andrew Benson, 27, a veteran of restaurants, soup kitchens and public schools, who talks about healthy eating with a missionary zeal.

He has special plans for the kitchen's deep fat fryer, which he doesn't use: ``We're actually going to go about trying to put it on eBay,'' he said.

The academy spends about $5.87 per student on breakfast, lunch and snacks, twice what many public schools spend. Almost all the students qualify for federally subsidized free lunch, and grants help support the food program.

Some students appreciate the effort.

Sixth-grader Falilou Barry wouldn't eat red cabbage the last time it was served because ``it looked purple.'' But next time, he said, ``I'm hoping to taste it.''

Tiffany Vargas, a seventh-grader, said she has learned to like foods including zucchini, vegetable lasagna and, yes, cabbage.

``There's a lot of things you don't like,'' she said, ``but it's better to try than to just say forget about it.''