As it turns out, Gov. Mark Warner (D) is not quite as skilled at twirling a Hula Hoop as he is at playing basketball, but the students at Mantua Elementary School in Fairfax didn’t seem to mind. Warner visited the school Thursday, June 16 to present the school with the Governor’s Gold Award for Best Practices in Nutrition and Physical Activity. Mantua was the only school in the state to receive such an award.
"We’re feeling good today," said Karen Sherman, of Mantua’s physical education department. "It’s a big deal to be recognized as a program." After Warner presented the faculty with the award, Sherman and Mantua students demonstrated athletic activities such as the Hula Hoop, basketball, and jump rope, all of which Warner joined in.
The Nutrition and Physical Activity Award program, which Warner established as part of his Healthy Virginians initiative, targets schools in order to promote healthy living among young people. It consists of an online scorecard by which schools can measure their nutritional and physical education programs against the standards outlined by the governor’s office.
"Twenty percent of students in the state are obese," said Warner. "This means they are candidates for Type II diabetes and hypertension, and a non-healthy child does not learn as well."
Warner outlined three targets in combating obesity at the elementary-school level: putting more money into school breakfasts, especially for poorer schools; allotting more time for physical activity during the day; and encouraging healthier choices in cafeteria and vending machine foods.
"We wanted to see how schools will do when we asked them to self-assess," said Warner. "Mantua did the best."
Quality school meals, health classes for the fifth and sixth grades and a strong physical education department, as well as extracurricular activities like the Mantua Basketball League and Raccoon Run, a cancer fund-raiser, gave Mantua Elementary its high marks.
While five other Virginia schools received awards, Mantua was the only one that received a gold medal. Depending on how Virginia’s schools progressed with regard to nutrition and physical fitness next year, Warner said, he might try and reinforce the program.
Penny McConnell, head nutritionist of Fairfax County Public Schools, agreed. "I’d like to see more schools get a Gold Award this year," she said.
Food and Nutrition Services are working to make sure all foods served at school, a la carte as well as breakfast and lunch, conform to the governor’s gold card standard.
"To do that," said McConnell, "we go directly to the food manufacturers to find products that meet these standards. For example, the popcorn we serve here does not meet the governor’s standards, even though it’s low-fat popcorn, so what we do is ask the manufacturers to change it."
Food and Nutrition Services is also searching the market for whole-grain products to serve with school meals.
"The challenge is to incorporate the grain, since a lot of students aren’t really eating grains at home," said McConnell. "But it usually takes about 10 tries for a young person to accept a new food."
For the faculty and students of Mantua Elementary, the Governor’s Gold Award was an accomplishment.
"We’re so proud of our physical education department and nutrition services," said school principal Jan-Marie Fernandez. In the coming year, Fernandez plans to form a "Healthy Committee" of students, parents and faculty, to look at the nutritional value of foods served at parties and school events.
Many Mantua Elementary students play in the school’s inter-grade basketball league, and for the most part are pleased with their healthy lunches.
"My brother told me I should start packing my lunch at home, because school lunches are so bad," said student Eliza May. "But I like them here."
As for the governor, he conceded to the students that he might need additional Hula Hoop instruction, but said that he would remember them "for their energy."