A group of health-conscious parents are hungry to get public schools to offer healthier options 

In an effort to combat the rampant childhood obesity epidemic and to spread awareness about healthy eating, a group of public school parents has joined to form EatWiseOKC.

The goal is simple: eliminating processed and high-sugar food while introducing options like fresh fruit and vegetables.

"Our practice so far has been primarily with Child Nutrition Services, going to them with specific requests," said Laura Massenat, a founder of EatWiseOKC. "We also have met with school board members, the mayor, the (Greater Oklahoma City) Chamber, anyone that would hear us and everyone involved in organizations involving child health."

Getting to the goal, however, hasn't been so easy.

The brick walls in the equation, according to Massenat, have been Oklahoma City Public Schools' Child Nutrition Services, along with many of the schools' cooks, although EatWise's persistence has been acting as steady erosion.

"I think it's the feeling of being criticized or of someone telling you that you're not doing a good job, which is not our point at all," she said. "(The cooks) are following all the rules, and they're doing exactly the job that they were hired to do. We just want to change the process up a little bit."

In the two years since its inception, EatWise has successfully lobbied to remove all flavored milk and breakfast Pop-Tarts from Wilson Elementary School and has introduced chef salad as an entrée choice.

"My oldest daughter will eat in the cafeteria every once in a while because she has salad as an option, and the kids are also drawn to the fresh fruits and vegetables now available," Torrey Butzer, another EatWise founder, said.

Other main goals, such as offering water in all serving lines, replacing Styrofoam with reusable trays and eliminating sugary cereals, have yet to be accomplished.

"The resistance is always in the form of 'the budget can't cover that' or 'the kids won't like that,'" Butzer said. "They're very reluctant to make changes too quickly. They want to introduce healthy foods little by little because they think kids will go hungry otherwise."

According to Tierney Cook, spokeswoman for OKCPS, the school district does agree with "the majority of concerns, including healthy eating and childhood obesity" that EatWise has brought to the table.

"Unfortunately, USDA regulations and federal funding do not allow for some of the suggested changes at this time," Cook said. "OKCPS administrators are optimistic that these barriers will be removed in the future so we can work together to enhance the service we provide to students across the district."

Members of EatWiseOKC attended a board meeting in April and spoke during the public forum section to make their cause known to all in attendance.

When crickets sounded during the call for the board's ideas in bettering school food, EatWise quickly chimed in.

"One suggestion was changing cereal companies, from General Mills to possibly Quaker or Kashi. If you look at the list that came out in Time recently of the top 10 sugary cereals marketed to kids, every one of them is in our school," Massenat said. "There was also talk of putting school gardens in the curriculum, of definitely putting more money and focus on nutrition and of having us help in that process."

Many ideas have been floating around as to how the group would alter the current menu items, with the central concern focusing on getting rid of foods that appear to be processed.

"We want to move away from that fast-food mentality altogether," Butzer said. "The present approach is to say, 'Let's make the pizza and hamburgers more healthy,' and we're saying, 'Let's not even serve that.' These foods still aren't going to be anywhere close to healthy."

Members of EatWise agree that the group's presence has made a difference in regards to the examination and replacement of current foods, and that the parents have undoubtedly achieved some seemingly idealistic feats.

"There's a need for education for people who want to make the change but just don't know how. I think there's going to be a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas " we're just going to meet whatever needs might continue to pop up," Massenat said.

photo/Mark Hancock

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