Improving student nutrition outside of the classroom

Providence, RI – For the past few years, Rhode Island has been cracking down on the type of foods schools serve in their cafeterias. Recent regulations require more servings of fruits and vegetables, less sodium, and more whole grains. But what happens when kids are tempted by chips and soda away from the classroom?

One school in Pawtucket experimented with getting students to choose healthy foods on their own.

Sixth grader Lindsey Baguchinsky loved going to Ama's Variety and Mini-mart on her way to school. "I'd grab lunchables and soda and I'd buy Little Debbie," she says."It was like honey buns and stuff like that"

Lindsey says she knows the food is unhealthy, but it it's really good, so she eats it anyway. The teachers at Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary school noticed a lot of students eating like Lindsey.

"I see them, the children coming in in the morning, and they have a big bag of chips, they have soda," Lucie Rafferty, the school nurse, says. "I think some even use their lunch money on the way to school. They stop and get very unhealthy treats."

Lucie Rafferty says Baldwin has entirely transformed its cafeteria- they now serve fresh fruit, salads, beans, and fresh vegetables every day. But all of that healthy eating wasn't affecting the choices students made outside of school.

"Any choice they make in school cannot be unhealthy because there's no unhealthy alternative," she says. "So that's not really making a healthy choice. I want them to be able to make a healthy choice when surrounded by unhealthy ones."

And their unhealthy choices were being made at Ama's Variety and Mini-mart. It bothered owner Ama Amponsah. She says she's been running her store for more than 20 years, long enough to see two generations of students eating too much sugar and fat before school.

"Some of the things that they've been buying I know, so early in the morning, when you have that sugar fill, you crash eventually. How do you pay attention in class?"

So Ama Amponsah and the teachers at Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary teamed up. With some help from a program called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, they redesigned Ama's Variety store. Amponsah points to a small refrigerator next to the front door. It's filled with string cheese, juices, and yogurt.

"For instance, this was not here," she says. "This was filled with sodas, all kinds of different sodas and energy drinks. And as you can tell, we have all of the healthier choices right here, the stuff that is refrigeratable."

Now, sugary drinks are in the back of the store. So are the chips and candies. In their place are pretzels, salt free trail mixes, and baked chips. Last month, Amponsah gave students a raffle ticket for every healthy purchase, good for a drawing at Baldwin Elementary School. That contest motivated 6th grader Gabriel Verroa.

"When I heard about the program, I said, oh, I want to try that," he says. "And ever since I was buying apples and baked chips and things that will make me healthy."

Gabriel knew he had to change his habits after his doctor told him he was overweight. In the past two months he's combined exercise with eating healthy snacks and lost 10 pounds.

But now that the raffle is over, interest in the healthy snacks has slowed down and Ama Amponsah faces some new challenges. The healthy snacks were a gift from the Healthy Corner Store Initiative- a coalition organized by the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island. Now she has to buy the items herself, and they're more expensive than the honey buns or potato chips that fly off the shelves. She might have to raise her prices.

That's the challenge that all convenience store owners face- matching healthy foods with affordable prices. It's why the healthy corner store initiative is dreaming up policies to make it easier for store owners to do the right thing. The group hopes to create nutritional requirements for stores near schools or help shops make bulk purchases.

In the meantime, Ama Amponsah says she'll keep selling her string cheese and pretzels for as long as she can.

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