published Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Orchard Knob Elementary's efforts to improve nutrition, fitness draw national recognition

Tyrus Bush, Treniya Knight and A'Shawn Johnson, foreground from left, walk in one direction while Kasey Greene, Keshon Carr and Kinnidy Glover walk in the other as Orchard Knob Elementary students participate in physical education class Tuesday. Orchard Knob Elementary recently earned a federal honor for their healthy schools initiative.
Tyrus Bush, Treniya Knight and A'Shawn Johnson, foreground from left, walk in one direction while Kasey Greene, Keshon Carr and Kinnidy Glover walk in the other as Orchard Knob Elementary students participate in physical education class Tuesday. Orchard Knob Elementary recently earned a federal honor for their healthy schools initiative.
Photo by John Rawlston.

During recess the kids at Orchard Knob Elementary School eat parsley. They eat those stems and leafy herbs by the handful.

Ellen Craig, a teacher who helps manage the school's five gardens, isn't sure why.

"It's not normally considered a snack," she said.

But she's just glad they are eating something fresh, something that isn't packed with sugar and starch, something green.

"If you tell them that [parsley] is good for them, they will eat them and really like it, just as much as candy," she said.

Orchard Knob has become an island in the East Chattanooga food desert, one of the few places where elementary students easily can get vegetables, wheat bread, fruit and lean meat. Of the school's 620 students, almost all receive free or reduced-price lunches. Nutritious meals are hard to find in the community that is mostly minority and poor.

And school officials' efforts to infuse the school with nutrition and fitness-oriented programs now have garnered national recognition.

Recently Orchard Knob was given the highest honor, the gold award of distinction, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a Healthier U.S. School Challenge. It was one of only a handful of schools in Tennessee to carry the title. Birchwood Elementary School received a silver distinction.

"I think it is awesome," said Principal LaFrederick Thirkill. "I see that there was a real concerted effort to address health. Many of our kids suffer from illness [because of malnutrition] and their health suffers."

Many efforts

To win, the school showed a laundry list of efforts. The cafeteria carefully monitored food portions and contents. The physical education classes measure students' weight and body mass index. Teachers incorporated exercise in many classes to increase calorie burn. Volunteers delivered fruit for snacks during the day, Thirkill said.

Garden produce, tended and studied by the students and teachers, was sent home to families. Teachers started to get healthier, teaching healthy recipes to students and running in a local race, he said.

Safe walk paths were developed so more students could get active after school. Exercise equipment was procured. A student from Girls Preparatory School came and taught tennis lessons on the weekend. The Chattanooga Area Food Bank sent bagged lunches home with students who might not have access to healthy food outside school, he said.

The list goes on.

$2,000 award

For the award, the school receives $2,000 which Thirkill plans to use to purchase more software and exercise equipment for the school's initiative. Even though the competition for the grant is over, he said educators still want to be focused on health.

"You can be the smartest kid in the world, but if you are malnourished you don't have a chance to enjoy that," he said.

In the meantime, everyone at Orchard Knob is waiting for the summer plants to come to life. Apple trees were planted not long ago.

Blueberry bushes and strawberries will show fruit soon enough.

Although, they may not taste as good as the parsley.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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