Reading and math have always gotten plenty of focus at school, but lately, so has health.
Jimmy Byers, East Hall Middle School physical education and health teacher, said it’s important for children to learn healthy habits while young so they develop into healthy adults.
"Eating healthy helps to control weight, improves mood, combats diseases, boosts energy and improves longevity," he said. "Just as with physical activity, learning to eat healthy at a young age will result in healthy eating as an adult."
To that end, many schools limit the cupcakes and cookies students can bring to celebrate their birthdays, and they cut down on unhealthy incentives such as pizza parties.
"We’re trying to cut out those unhealthy things," said Robin Gower, principal of Tadmore Elementary School in Hall County. "It’s not easy, but we feel like it is an important thing for us to do."
Gower said Tadmore recently received the Healthy School bronze-level award for health incentives in the classroom.
"We ask parents not to bring in cupcakes or things like that for birthdays, and instead to purchase ice cream out of our Healthy Choice ice creams, or to provide something else," she said. "What I would love for them to do, and what we suggest, is for them to buy a book for the media center and put a nameplate in it."
Gower said other parents make birthday goodie-bags, filled with pencils, erasers and other school supplies, instead of sending sugary treats.
Daphne Skinner, whose daughter Bella Skinner attends North Hall Middle School, said she thinks sometimes the school system goes too far. A small sugary treat would be appropriate, she said.
Exact rules vary by school, though.
Will Campbell, principal of Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School in Gainesville, said students at his school can bring in sweets to celebrate their birthdays or special occasions, like Valentine’s Day. But Gainesville schools have a healthy eating initiative to get kids snacking on better foods.
"It is for school-sponsored things, such as fundraisers, snacks in the machines and of course meals served through our school," Campbell said.
Campbell himself takes the initiative to teach Fair Street students about serving size.
"If I see a kid with a big bag of Cheetos, I’ll turn it over to the back side of the packaging where it has the amount per serving and I’ll ask the kids, ‘Have you ever looked at this side of the bag?’" he said.
At Lakeview Academy, parents are allowed to send their child with a treat, but the school asks that they don’t send sweets for the whole class.
"The biggest thing in elementary is birthday parties," said Head of School John Kennedy. "While being sensitive to the parents’ desire to honor their children, we do ask that they not include all the children when bringing in cupcakes and things other parents may not want their children to have."
The school has taken steps in the past few years to help students be healthier, including adding a salad bar in the lunchroom to cater to vegetarian students, according to Kennedy.
"We formed a Wellness Committee a year or two back and have made baby steps," Kennedy said. "The first thing was to get rid of the vending machines, but we’ve also centered more on exercise. We doubled P.E. time in the middle school and added six or seven classes in the upper school dealing with health and wellness, like an aerobics class."
Byers said the health class offered in Hall middle schools teaches children how to be healthy at home with their families.
"One of the most important aspects of a healthy life is eating a well-balanced diet," he said. "We teach a nutrition unit for each grade level. Sixth grade begins with learning about the six basic nutrients: water, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, and move into more advanced with seventh and eighth grade."
By the time a student reaches the eighth-grade health course, he or she is logging each meal and snack and creating healthy meal plans.
Students who eat lunch at school are all but guaranteed a well-balanced meal.
Both Hall and Gainesville schools have menus that are whole-grain rich with low-fat milk and multiple daily fruit and vegetable choices.
Mike Whittaker, whose son Austin Whittaker is a rising fifth-grader at Martin Technology Academy, said he thinks schools should communicate better about what’s being served and why.
Both and he and Skinner said kids often don’t like what’s on the lunch line, and since they have to take it anyway, a lot of food is wasted.
Hall school nutrition director Trae Cown said a lot of work goes into preparing school lunch menus, which have federally mandated health standards.
"We actually plan almost a year in advance for the menus," Cown has said. "It’s at least no later than January or February for the upcoming year, because we have to forecast what foods we’re going to be ordering."
Campbell said the purpose of healthy-eating initiatives in school is to help kids develop habits they can take home.
"Whatever we’re doing, we’re trying to get them ready for the future," he said. "We want to teach them how to make decisions, because we can’t make all of their decisions for them."
"Our goal is to have each student take what they learn in health and apply it in their own lives," he said. "Hopefully establishing a better way of eating and developing a more physically active lifestyle for our students and community."