First lady helps USDA honor Fairfax school's healthy habits

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Students at Hollin Meadows Elementary School were harvesting lettuce from the school's garden Wednesday morning when they received a visit from Gardener-in-Chief Michelle Obama.

"What are you going to do with that lettuce?" she asked a group of students as they tapped the soil from its dangling roots. "We are going to eat it!" they shouted.

The first lady visited the Fairfax County school to commend the students and their teachers for their healthy habits. Hollin Meadows is one of hundreds of schools throughout the country to be recognized by the U.S. Agriculture Department for its emphasis on nutrition and fitness.

Obama hopes to make it the first of many stops on a tour of schools that are combating childhood obesity and creating healthy environments for students. "If we don't do something about it now, it's only going to get worse," she said.

The aging brick school is surrounded by more than 14,000 square feet of gardens, and teachers often bring their lessons outside. The courtyard hosts an outdoor library, and math and science lessons can involve measuring worms or studying the anatomy of real plants, instead of diagrams.

Hollin Meadows also has a popular running club, health-conscious lunch menus and a commitment to exercise during the school day. As other schools are cutting back or eliminating recess, Hollin Meadows recently increased its break time from 20 minutes to 30 minutes a day.

Principal Jon Gates said the emphasis on recess might seem counterintuitive, because it shaves minutes from instructional time. But running around outside pays dividends in the classroom, he said.

"Anyone who has kids knows they need recess and exercise to focus. If you own a dog, you know that," Obama said, drawing laughs from school officials. "But I guess that's part of the challenge, changing the mentality within the system about what priorities make sense and why."

The first lady started a White House garden where fruits and vegetables are grown for use year-round in the kitchen. She also initiated a public campaign to help Americans better understand where their food comes from.

The Hollin Meadows garden was initiated by parents five years ago, and it has continued to grow. Along the way, it has been embraced by teachers.

A lot of people think the way to make "kids score well on standardized tests is to practice taking a lot of tests," said Jason Pittman, a science resource teacher at the school. But at Hollin Meadows, the emphasis is on learning through experiencing things.

Hands-on lessons have helped engage students and boost academic performance at the school, where nearly half of the students live in poverty, teachers said.

The first lady and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also stopped by the school's cafeteria, where many students were munching on garden burgers with whole wheat buns and drinking low-fat milk.

On Thursday, the school will be crowded with families for the school's annual Thanksgiving feast. They will dine on turkey and cranberry sauce and giant bowls of salad, full of lettuce grown by the students.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company