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Going Back to Basics 

Cheney Public Schools helps battle obesity through education and home cooking

click to enlarge Laura Martin (left), the wellness coordinator at Cheney Middle School, shows off a healthy school lunch. - SARAH WURTZ
  • Sarah Wurtz
  • Laura Martin (left), the wellness coordinator at Cheney Middle School, shows off a healthy school lunch.

In the war on obesity — and the daily skirmishes known as kids' healthy food choices — Eastern Washington has a not-so-secret weapon in Laura Martin. A Cheney resident, mother of two and wife of a former principal, Martin has been Cheney Public Schools' wellness coordinator since 2011, and has been working with East Valley's schools since 2013 as part of Empire Health Foundation's Childhood Obesity Initiative, with support from Providence Health Care.

Martin is the point person for several programs that embrace the "It takes a village to raise a child" philosophy. She will do just about anything to help stakeholders — kids, teachers, kitchens, parents, the community — effect change.

"All I need for you to do for me is open your door," she says.

At Cheney, those efforts have included revamping school kitchens to handle from-scratch cooking (versus using warming ovens and predominately packaged foods) and purchasing exercise equipment for select schools.

"We believe, and our experience has proven us correct, that in order to be successful in getting kids excited about eating healthier foods you must: one, make it fun — an adventure. Two, create an environment where the kids learn that it's fun to try new foods and it's also OK if they don't like everything they try. And three, we also want kids to gain a strong understanding of why it's important for them to make healthy food choices, and what those healthy food choices look like in the form of snacks, lunch and dinner."

click to enlarge Early in the school day, kitchen lead Pauline Battien prepares pulled pork from scratch.
  • Early in the school day, kitchen lead Pauline Battien prepares pulled pork from scratch.

That's meant playing a version of vegetable "Fear Factor" with kids, giving presentations to middle and high school students about the sometimes misleading marketing strategies employed in food packaging, even writing a curriculum for teachers to plug-and-play into science, health, even math classes.

The district, which has continued to tweak the various components of the program, was, in 2013-14, the only Washington district to receive the USDA's Farm to School Planning grant. The "Eat Real Food' Harvest of the Month program, says Martin, "showcases a different Washington-grown food each month" and has been wildly successful with kids and parents.

Parents, in fact, have been integral to the learning process since day one. Family cooking and shopping events, for example, include one in which Martin and her team prepared a typical "fast food" meal, demonstrating how it can be done in a healthy way, more cost-effectively — and nearly as fast — as a drive-through.

So what does all of this look like to the kids coming down the cafeteria line?

On a typical week, breakfast might be omelets with fresh fruit, homemade oatmeal and raisins, banana bread, fruit smoothies, granola or cereal. For lunches, which include a fresh fruit and vegetable bar every day, the cooks choose from a variety of recipes, including chicken fajitas, Asian pork and rice, homemade chicken strips, and pizza. A sign notes the fresh fruit or vegetable for each day of the week — roasted cauliflower may grace a Monday, while hummus and veggies might be Thursday's star.

"We jokingly tell people all the time that we are creating the next generation of 'foodies' here in Cheney," says Martin. ♦

click to enlarge Assistant cook Rene Mahaffy crafts a brightly colored, fresh salad.
  • Assistant cook Rene Mahaffy crafts a brightly colored, fresh salad.

Lentil Chili

Try this easy-to-prepare, kid-tested-and-approved alternative to conventional meat-and-beans chili. Lentils are an affordable and likable legume — high in fiber, low in fat, and full of B vitamins and protein.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

2 16-ounce jars of salsa

1½ cups water

26 ounce can of tomato sauce

16 ounces beef broth

8 ounces dried brown lentils

1 tablespoon pepper

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon salt

1. In a large stock pot, sauté onion, green pepper and garlic in oil until tender.

2. Add remaining ingredients and simmer until lentils are tender.

Serves 6

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