Ala school promoting health through grants

SYLACAUGA, Ala. (AP) — Cooking fresh vegetables, exercising, gardening, studying butterflies – these are just a few activities Pinecrest Elementary School students will partake in this year thanks to nearly $15,000 in health-related grants.

The city school was awarded a $6,300 Blue Cross Blue Shield “Be Healthy” grant Tuesday, in addition to previously received grants including $4,000 from The WAY, $1,000 from Active Schools Acceleration Program, $1,200 from the First Lady’s “Just Move” program, $1,800 from a UAB multigenerational health study, and a state grant to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s all about health and wellness,” said Pinecrest Principal Gary Rivers. “Alabama is always in the top three in state obesity rankings, and we’re trying to do our part to offset that epidemic. The best time to start is when students are young to help change their eating and exercise habits.”

The grants will fund creation of a handicap-accessible educational outdoor garden, complete with two portable grow towers, vegetables and other plants, a butterfly garden, a water feature, seating areas and more. Part of the funds will also purchase Wii game systems, elliptical exercise machines, basketballs and floor mats for implementation of an early morning exercise class in the school’s new gym.

Additionally, they will support parental and civic involvement through periodic parent nutrition meetings (one being this Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the school) and nutrition classes at SAFE’s Sylacauga Grows community garden. Students will also receive weekly lessons to introduce them to different fruits and vegetables and math and science instruction that incorporates correlating exercises.

The school’s efforts kicked off last year with installation of the vegetable grow towers and the UAB grant award, which is part of a study that will follow rural elementary students through high school to determine the impact of school nutrition and exercise programs. This semester, though, is when the full array of wellness initiatives will be implemented.

“It’s exciting, and it’s going to be really nice once we get everything going,” said fourth-grade teacher Pam Roberts, who Rivers called the ‘brainchild’ behind the wellness push. “I’m hoping students will take home cooking skills, better food choice skills, and I’m also hoping it’s going to increase their mastery of certain math and science objectives that are going to tie in. The students that have been involved so far have been excellent. They really want to learn.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield “Be Healthy” grants of up to $10,000 each went to 22 schools statewide, including Childersburg Elementary School. BCBS community relations manager Jeff Adams said Pinecrest’s application was unique in that it showed community, corporate and educational support.

“One of the things we’ve noticed from a food perspective is that fresh food is a lot better than canned, so this particular application stuck out to us because of what Pinecrest was already doing with nutrition,” Adams said. “When we partner with the schools, we ask that they ensure the children exercise, they eat right, and we ask for parental involvement. We know that’s a lot to ask, and it’s a tough process, but we saw what they were doing. We saw they had community support, and that was important in our decision to choose them, and also when we saw the educational partnership with UAB, it made the application stick out more.”

The garden, in particular, is supported through donations and volunteer labor from numerous local companies including Conn Concrete, Reams Construction, Sylacauga Backhoe, Home Depot, and volunteers from Sylacauga Grows, Sylacauga schools and Columbiana United Methodist Church youth.

“It goes along with our ‘College, Career, Community’ initiative in the school system to have that community and corporate involvement, and we want the children to learn the importance of giving back,” Roberts said.

Sylacauga Grows lead gardener Bill Roberts said SAFE jumped on the opportunity to be part of this pilot program in Sylacauga schools.

“Youth are one of our renewable resources, as I like to call them, and if we can inspire them to go into farming, agriculture or growing trees, that’s just going to help us promote the wellbeing of the earth,” he said. “It behooves us to at least instruct them and increase their knowledge of all these things.”

The school has big hopes for its initiatives to spread throughout the community and beyond, Bill Roberts said.

“We’re hoping other people will look at our program and say, ‘This is the way we want to do it,'” he said. “We want this to be in every community.”

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