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Jorea Marple: You have to look at the whole child

Jorea Marple, West Virginia's superintendent of schools, spoke with the Sunday Gazette-Mail for "The Shape We're In," a series of stories about obesity, chronic disease and improving West Virginia's health. Here are some excerpts of her comments.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "I grew up in Sutton, in Braxton County. People cooked from scratch then.

"Do you remember the first Swanson dinner? We all bought it. Lord knows it was awful. But we ate it because nobody had to do anything for it.

"But you know, kids were a lot more physically active then. I didn't come home till dark. I played hard. I was a little overweight. I'll admit that. I ate a lot, too. My mother made pies every day.

"But I was out running around. Everyone was out running around, so we burned off those calories. And we walked farther to get the school bus.

"We grew gardens and ate a lot of vegetables in the summertime. For three months, our standard menu was green beans, cottage cheese, tomatoes and corn on the cob.

"I lived in Sutton, but my dad always grew a garden, so we had lots of stuff and got lots of stuff from different people. There just wasn't processed food.

"I've always been a big believer that, in public education, you need to want for all children what you want for your own children. You have to look at that whole child and all the learning needs of that child.

"No Child Left Behind says we're going to fix reading and math. Well, if you're going to fix that, you have to ask: Is this child well? And healthy? And ready to learn? Those things affect the child's performance on reading and math.

"What children eat makes a difference in their cognitive focus and in their wellness.

"I get tickled at WESTEST time, when people want to feed all the kids free so they'll do better on the test. Children need to eat breakfast every day, not just when they take the test, if we want them to do better.

"When we talk about learning, we have to talk about the nutritional needs of the children. We need to talk about their physical acuity, if we want them to be mentally acute."

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"You also have to think about the quality of relationships between the adults and children in a school. Kids accept messages about wellness and nutrition if those messages are presented by people they believe care about them.

"There was a recent Harvard study of 309,000 adults. The researchers looked at whether or not those adults had a strong, positive relationship with somebody else. If they didn't, they were 50 percent more likely to die early. They also found that they were more likely to suffer from dementia.

"My point is that, we must have strong relationships in our schools, and we've got to walk the walk. Teachers have to model that 'I'm concerned if I'm overweight, and I'm doing these kinds of things to do something about it.'

"It also matters what we cook and what we feed the children to eat. That affects their health and ability to focus.

"We have a major issue in obesity and wellness in West Virginia. Obesity and wellness are not just related to people who live in poverty. It's everybody. Our schools are part of solving this problem.

"So in six different counties this year we're feeding everybody free breakfast and lunch. To get that deal, the cooks must cook from scratch. They must take out the processed foods.

"The Cabell County cooks who have been doing this awhile are enthusiastic. I visited them. They really moved me, the pride they felt about making things from scratch rather than heating and serving processed food.

"We asked the Cabell cooks to train other cooks from other counties last summer. All the cooks were so enthusiastic at that training. I didn't hear any reservation about doing away with processed food. They know it's the right thing to do. They want kids to eat well."

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"It's important for cooks to understand why and to give them what they need to do the job.

"The job of a school cook is really difficult. Just think if you had to go to the same restaurant every day, five days a week, how satisfied you would be? But schools are a starting point. We have a captive audience. The children are with us.

"To lower these obesity numbers, children also have to move more. So the second thing we're doing is called a Let's Move campaign. The challenge is: At every school, every day, everybody gets their heart rate up for 15 minutes. When you do that, you're going to be healthier. It's established by research. You're going to reduce your chances of diabetes and heart disease and other medical issues and probably going to be trimmer."

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"We are doing all this for a number of reasons, not just one. But there is one very good reason: We have a huge percent of children who live in poverty. And when you live in poverty, you suffer from chronic stress. And when you suffer from chronic stress, you have difficulty focusing on instruction.

"There are certain things research tells us help children who suffer from chronic stress. One is getting that heart rate up. Another is comprehensive arts, and another is not being hungry. If you really want reading and math to improve, then there is a relationship to physical activity and a child's ability to listen and focus and learn.

"Think about what the research tells us as adults. To clear our minds and to focus clearly, we need to move. It actually avoids dementia if we exercise. Research also shows that stress is a major cause of obesity. It's all connected. And that's why you have to view the development of children from a holistic standpoint. If you really value reading and math performance, you have to look at the whole child.

"We've created a society where convenience is a maximum, and sometimes convenience takes away from the right thing to do. We live in a fast-paced society, but it's really important that we cook and that we model that for the kids."


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