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Superheroes Help Bronx Schools Convince Kids to Eat Healthy

By Patrick Wall | June 26, 2012 4:22pm
A student at the salad bar at P.S. 218 in The Bronx. That school has implemented a host of initiatives to encourage healthy eating, including superhero-themed nutritional ads.
A student at the salad bar at P.S. 218 in The Bronx. That school has implemented a host of initiatives to encourage healthy eating, including superhero-themed nutritional ads.
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Bronx Health REACH/Diana Johnson

CONCOURSE — Several months ago, the social marketing firm Worldways gathered 15 Bronx school children into a room.

The marketers asked the pint-sized focus group a simple question: Who would be best to convince kids to eat their vegetables — astronauts, athletes or superheroes?

Without hesitation, the children chose superheroes.

Shortly afterward, the students found three helmeted heroes hovering on posters above their school salad bar: Frankie Fruitman, Victor Veggie and Wanda Water. The trio is part of an experimental ad campaign meant to convince kids to pass over the sweets and soda and double up on the apples and carrots.

The city’s Department of Education in recent years has put a priority on making its cafeteria food more nutritious. But several nonprofit groups and individual schools have taken on an even tougher task — making healthy eating part of a school's culture.

"It’s going one step further than just educating the child to actually persuading them," said Diana Johnson, a program coordinator with Bronx Health REACH, a coalition of community, social service and health care groups that helped design the superhero-themed nutritional ads, which were piloted at P.S./I.S. 218 in the Concourse area.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed his plan to ban large sugary drinks earlier this month, he made his announcement in The Bronx — the borough that leads the city in obesity and diabetes rates.

Eating habits are one reason that some 70 percent of Bronx adults are overweight or obese, experts say. Bronx residents eat fewer fruits and vegetables and drink more sugary beverages than New Yorkers in any other borough, according an annual community survey administered by the Department of Health.

Among young people in the South Bronx, eight in 10 eat fewer than five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, according to a 2007 report by the health department. Nearly 40 percent of the area’s elementary school children are overweight or obese, that studied showed.

"The South Bronx has been hardest hit by the obesity epidemic," said Cathy Nonas, director of the Health Department’s physical activity and nutrition program.

The city's education department has taken several steps in recent years to improve students' diets.

The roughly 820,000 meals that the DOE serves each day limit unhealthy ingredients, such as sodium and cholesterol, and push nutritious options, such as whole-grain pastas and low-fat milk.

The city’s public schools also house about 900 salad bars, as well as vending machines stocked with healthy snacks, according to SchoolFood support director, Stephen O’Brien.

Making nutritious food available to students is one thing — but convincing them to eat it is another.

To do that, several Bronx schools have launched wellness campaigns of their own, often partnering with nonprofit groups, to make sure that healthy eating is the norm in their buildings.

At P.S./I.S. 218, for example, besides the superhero ads, the school has introduced tai chi in some classrooms, installed a water jet in the cafeteria and instituted a policy that bans high-calorie, sugary foods from the school, even during classroom parties.

"We wrote it up and it’s really happening — it’s not just paperwork," said Elba Rodriguez, an English teacher and union representative at P.S./I.S. 218 who has helped the school nurse, Veronica Echols, implement the initiatives.

The school has also reached beyond its walls, by offering cooking and exercise workshops to parents, convincing a local bodega to more prominently display its healthy snacks and encouraging students to coach their parents on nutrition-minded shopping.

"Parents come up to me and they’ll say, 'We were in the store and my child said, 'Mom, can we make a better choice?' " Echols said.

At P.S. 69 in Soundview, bake sale staples like cookies and pies have been replaced with yogurt, fruit salad and fresh-squeezed, low-sugar lemonade. In the summer, parents attend tastings where they munch on vegetables their children grew in the school garden.

"It really is becoming part of the culture in the building," said Sheila Durant, the school’s principal.

Beginning this fall, cafeterias in all six schools in the Bronx-based Icahn Charter School network will feature "Meatless Mondays" as part of a push to get students to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets.

Icahn’s superintendent, Jeffrey Litt, said the sight of students gorging on junk food in the morning and at lunch, then crashing in the afternoon, is all too common at his schools.

The meat-free Mondays are meant to help students get into the habit of eating more fruits and vegetables and maybe even experiment with more adventurous foods like tofu, Litt said.

To do that, students may have to shake some misconceptions about what tofu even is, he said.

"It’s not a guy who plays third base for the Mets," Litt quipped.