HOULTON — About seven years ago, officials in SAD 29 began taking significant steps to address issues of obesity in its schoolchildren.
Sparked by its school health coordinator, the district made over its school lunch menu and filled its vending machines with healthier items, opened a new fitness center at Houlton High School and even began notifying parents of their child’s body mass index, or BMI.
Some of that momentum has been lost in the past year, however, after Lynn Brown, the former school health coordinator, took a job as a teacher in the district, and her former position was not filled.
During a school board meeting Monday evening, members of the SAD 29 health committee told the board they are focused on continuing efforts that began several years ago, but they need a school health coordinator to help them do it.
Sonja Burleigh, a special services teacher at the high school and a member of the health committee, told the board that a school health coordinator is needed to help students learn to embrace a healthy lifestyle and make it a lifelong priority.
“We spent seven years working to make our students healthier, and we made great progress,” said Burleigh. “But we can’t continue to do that without a school health coordinator. That is the person who writes the grants, conducts research, supplies program materials, supports the health committee and more.”
Lauren Fitzpatrick, a teacher at Houlton Elementary School and another health committee member, agreed. She pointed to 2009 statistics from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, showing that between 25 percent and 29 percent of Mainers are obese. That is up from 10 percent to 14 percent in 1987.
Audrey York, who is one of two school nurses in the district, reviewed the accomplishments made by the health committee in the past seven years. The district eliminated soda and unhealthy snacks in its vending machines, and school lunches were revamped to contain fewer processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2007, the school sent letters home notifying parents of their child’s BMI. The district also secured a grant in 2009 to offer students fruit and vegetable snacks three times a week. Those snacks included Clementine oranges, cucumbers, sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes.
Fitzpatrick said the district no longer sends the BMI letters home, and York said the students no longer are given Clementines. The grant that provided the vegetable snacks also has run out.
“We lost a lot of ground when our school health coordinator became a teacher,” York acknowledged. “I remember being absolutely shocked when I encountered a child who weighed more than 100 pounds in elementary school. Now, that is more common. And if they are overweight that early in life, it is more likely that it will be a lifelong problem for them.”
The school board did not make a decision on the matter Monday evening. The district has applied for grant funding to partially finance a school health coordinator position, but the grant would not pay for the entire cost of the staffer. The board will talk more about the matter during budget hearings later this month.