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Issue Date: March 2006 Issue


Cutting the Fat

Schools, cities, businesses and neighborhoods take off the pounds together.


Christopher Johnson

At the snack bar in the Fitch Intermediate School cafeteria, colorful blow-ups of ice cream bars, sandwiches and drumsticks decorate the outside of a freezer case. Inside, however, nothing doing.

When Denise Tabar, food service director for the Olmsted Falls School District, announced the final days of full-fat frozen foods, the school's fifth-graders staged the Great Ice Cream Revolt of '05, complete with a boycott and "Save Our Ice Cream" buttons. The energetic and affable Tabar quickly melted the ice cream insurgents' resolve, however, by assuring them that they could still choose among a variety of delicious desserts.

Cafeteria staffers now stock the case - and cases throughout the district - with only low-fat ice milk, sherbet and frozen yogurt treats.

"As an education facility, we have a responsibility to teach the children the proper food choices," Tabar says.

Keeping ice cream out was just one part of Tabar's strategic efforts to put less fat into hundreds of hungry fourth- and fifth-grade bodies that eagerly surge through Fitch's dining facility.
Currently, Ohio nearly matches the national average with 14 percent of adolescents overweight, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Yet, the state has the 13th highest adult obesity rate (24 percent) in the nation, the Health Policy Institute of Ohio recently pointed out. As a result, schools, cities, neighborhood development organizations and businesses throughout Greater Cleveland are aggressively implementing wellness programs that encourage people to eschew unhealthy foods and introduce more physical activities into their daily lives.

Several years ago, in response to the overweight-student statistics and growing concern for the nation's belt-busting waistlines, Tabar began a significant overhaul of Olmsted Falls' school dining practices and menu offerings for the roughly 65 percent of students who buy their lunches.

Along with ice cream, no fried foods are served in any of the four school cafeterias. Students' beverage choices are limited to milk, water or 100 percent juice drinks. Fresh salads, fruits and vegetables have replaced less healthy canned or heavily buttered versions. All salad dressings are low fat, and gravies are a rarity. The majority of starches served are whole grain.

Additionally, breakfasts are available every day but doughnuts and sweetened cereal aren't on the menu. At Fitch, students are now allowed to take breakfast into the classroom so they're not rushing to get to their first class, which has quadrupled "breakfast club" membership.

"If we give the kids healthy options and feed them prior to starting school, then maybe they won't be as inclined to want junk food because they're so hungry," explains Tabar, who circulates through the district's cafeterias each day, asking students if they're enjoying the food. "Do I tell them they can never eat doughnuts?" she continues. "Absolutely not. They can have a doughnut. I just don't want them to eat them every day for breakfast."

The ultimate goal, Tabar says, is to help students make good nutritional decisions for the rest of their lives. For devising all of these healthy choice changes, Olmsted Falls' schools earned one of the state's Stellar Awards for Best Nutrition Practices.

Tabar, a registered dietitian, also recently assumed a lead nutritionist role throughout Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina and Summit county schools. One of Ohio's 10 wellness coordinators, Tabar advises schools as they develop their health and wellness programs to comply with the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. The new law requires every school district in the U.S. that participates in the national school lunch program to formalize policies that address healthy nutrition education, food-service practices and school-based physical activities by June 30.

Schools have been developing programs such as after-school walking or jump rope clubs and "five-minute energizers," brief exercise routines between classes that energize kids and augment their daily physical activity. The message: Fat is out. Fun is in.

Some other local fat-fighters:

City of Cleveland

The City Hall cafeteria cut fried and butter-laden foods in favor of healthier choices including fresh fruits and vegetables. One bonus: The price of bottled water was dropped to make it competitive with sodas.

A five-year, $7 million-plus grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funds Steps to a Healthier Cleveland, which offers wellness-awareness programs. For example, the city is providing ongoing training sessions in different neighborhoods to create a community health-worker network.

Sherwin-Williams Co.

One of the first members of the city?s Healthy Cleveland Business Council initiative, Sherwin-Williams Co. offers a 10,000-square-foot corporate fitness center with outdoor tennis and basketball courts and a running track. The company issued 15,000 pedometers company-wide last year and encouraged employees to walk 10,000 steps a day, says Matt Fyffe, wellness center manager.

The Neighborhoods

Thanks to a $200,000 grant, the Slavic Village Development organization provides and promote physical activity programming throughout the neighborhood through mini-grants to a variety of organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, which funds the Little Tumblers gymnastics program. Slavic Village Development is overseeing the creation of green spaces and walking trails, including Morgana Run Trail, a 2.5-mile path that winds through the neighborhood, Mill Creek Falls Park and the MetroParks Washington Park reservation. The community also boasts a new golf course.


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