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Students need more nutrition, fitness education

September 4, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 394 lbs.

Last week: 389 lbs.

Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.

Total lost: 76 lbs.

My message to students, as they head back to school, is, “Don’t become like me.” My message to parents is, “Don’t let your children grow up to be like me.” And my message to educators is, “Don’t let your students become like me.”

I’m talking health-wise, not career-wise. Being a newspaper editor is actually pretty cool. Being morbidly obese is not.

I know, I know, you’re supposed to love yourself and all that, but when you’re my size, it’s tough. No matter how many jokes you tell to mask your pain, the fat is still there when you look into the mirror. It’s still there when you try to squeeze into blue jeans. I haven’t worn blue jeans — the “husky” size — since I was in high school. The fat is still there when you try, but fail, to make the starting lineup of the varsity baseball team. The only time I started was the last game of the season because most of the team got caught playing in the nighttime softball league, which was against the rules.

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Yet food was always there to soothe my pain.

Self-medicating with food came early in my life, and there are millions of kids doing the same right now. It starts with extra portions. Then, when you outgrow the skinny clothes and start to get ridiculed by other kids, the self-medicating creeps into the shadows — at night or home alone, always when nobody is looking.

If there was any attempt to teach me nutrition during my elementary, middle and high school years, it failed. I don’t remember any. There was health class, but that was forgettable. And while physical education classes kept me moving for the appointed time I was there, they didn’t teach me anything about fitness and only reminded me that I wasn’t physically fit. I learned more by being on the weight-lifting team.

Food with high levels of fat, sugar and salt were always available growing up. At home, the food was cheap and easy. Schwan’s (burritos, ice cream, etc.) made a lasting impression. At school, the cafeteria was always about the good-tasting food (French fries with everything), not about nutrition. And at work during my high school years, I spent my time at McDonald’s. Need I say more?

I was not a couch potato growing up. In my early years, I spent a lot of time running around, playing baseball and riding my bike. That changed when I moved from the elementary school to the big school, seventh grade, in Tupper Lake. In my spare time, I was in the drama club and chorus. I had my own newspaper route until I was old enough to get a real job. When I turned 16, I began working at McDonald’s, nights during the week and on weekends. I didn’t go to my prom as a junior and senior; I was busy working.

As I graduated and moved on to SUNY Fredonia, the traditions of eating and work continued. The only thing I added was alcohol, which made things worse. I continued to work at college, mainly at the campus radio station but also at McDonald’s and the post office. To my credit, I walked everywhere for most of my college years, since I didn’t have a car, so I’m sure that helped prevent me from ballooning more than the 80 pounds I gained in four-and-a-half years. I weighed 250 pounds when I graduated high school, lost 30 pounds that summer before going to Fredonia and weighed about 300 pounds when I returned home in December 1991. I learned a lot about a lot of things in college, but nutrition and fitness were not among them.

I’m not blaming anyone for my obesity. In the end, the buck stops here. It’s my fault. Nobody shoved the food down my throat. But I’m sure things could have been different if nutrition and fitness were a bigger part of my education.

Think about it. I may not be rich and famous, but I’ve had a successful, award-winning career in journalism, public relations and publishing since returning home from college almost 23 years ago. All of this started with an opportunity, then another and another, and they were followed by hard work and determination. But if it weren’t for those opportunities, such as my college internship at 97 Rock in Buffalo and the chance to produce documentaries for North Country Public Radio right after graduation, I wouldn’t have been able to build a portfolio and move on to full-time work at the local newspapers. And that gave me the confidence to write and self-publish eight Adirondack history books in the past 10 years.

Edible Schoolyard

Good things start with opportunities, and I believe more opportunities should be given to students when it comes to nutrition and fitness education. Not, “Here’s some nutritious food. Now eat it.” And not, “Go run around the gymnasium. You may lose some weight.” All schools should adopt programs similar to the Edible Schoolyard Project, started in the 1990s in Berkeley, California, by restauranteur and food activist Alice Waters. Getting more locally grown food in school cafeterias, as part of the Adirondack Farm to School Initiative, is a great start, but it’s far from enough.

In Lake Placid, North Country School is a model for fitness and nutrition education. What began as a pilot project for seventh-graders last year, the Edible Schoolyard has been expanded to include all their students in grades 4 through 9. Programs include garden classrooms, kitchen classrooms, academic classrooms and the school cafeteria.

North Country School operates a working farm with animals and gardens. That’s always been a part of the school’s curriculum, but the Edible Schoolyard broadens the students’ education.

During the fall, students plant seeds and transplant seedlings, harvest and process winter crops, participate in chicken harvesting, and put the Children’s Garden to bed. They learn the differences between industrial and local farming and compare foods that grow in the Adirondacks to food grown where they live.

During the winter, students spend most of their Edible Schoolyard time in the kitchen, preparing food from the farm and learning to make food choices that are healthy for the environment. Instruction also focuses on nutrition and students make healthy food choices.

In the spring, students split their time between the farm and the kitchen. They follow the natural rhythms of the farm, learning about new baby animals, maple sugaring, starting seeds in the greenhouse, and planning and preparing garden beds for planting. In the kitchen, students continue to make food that uses seasonal and local ingredients.

Outside the classroom, North Country School students participate in the Outdoor Program, which includes after-school, weekend and overnight activities such as skiing, backpacking and mountain climbing. They stay active because it’s part of school life. Hiking Cascade Mountain, for example, is a graduation requirement.

I’m not saying all schools need to build farms. I’m saying all schools should adopt parts of the Edible Schoolyard Project as part of their curricula and make them graduation requirements. Furthermore, there should be more education about fitness — gymnasium time accompanied by classroom time. Maybe a graduation requirement for the Lake Placid High School could be to walk or run in a local 5k or half-marathon.

It doesn’t take much to create opportunities for kids to learn more about nutrition and fitness in a real and meaningful way. In many cases, it doesn’t even take a lot of money. What it takes is educators who see this as a priority.

Getting rid of soda machines in the hallways and adding more locally grown food in our schools’ cafeterias is a start, but it’s clearly not enough.

It’s not enough to prevent your children from becoming morbidly obese adults.


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Blog Photos

Walkers and participate in the Lake Placid Half-Marathon in June. Maybe competing in a half-marathon should be a graduation requirement for Lake Placid High School students. (News photo —Lou Reuter)