Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) kicked off the second phase of his three-part Healthy Virginians initiative yesterday by playing basketball and eating spaghetti with students at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria.
The initiative, designed to promote healthy eating and exercise, began last week targeting state employees and is to continue with a focus on Medicaid recipients. The schools part has two components: a nutrition and physical activity scorecard that will reward schools for voluntarily encouraging exercise and good nutrition, and a proposal for a 5-cent subsidy on school breakfasts, the state's first-ever subsidy for school breakfasts.
"Research . . . indicates that children who eat breakfast perform better academically, are less disruptive in class and have fewer visits to the school nurse," Warner told students and teachers gathered in the Tucker gym.
The cost of poor health is high, he added later, noting that the state spends almost $400 million a year on employee health benefits and Medicaid payments related to diseases arising from "unhealthy lifestyles."
In the past 20 years, the number of overweight children in the United States has doubled, and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled. In Virginia, more than one-third of obesity diagnoses are in children, and 20 percent of middle-school-age children are at risk for Type 2 diabetes.
"This is no longer something that can be dealt with a public announcement saying, 'Please eat healthier,' " Warner said.
Breakfast is now available in 85 percent of Virginia schools and must be offered in schools in which 25 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The breakfast subsidy, which would cost the state $1.5 million a year, is designed to increase the number of schools offering breakfast.
Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Warner, said lower-income children in particular often skip breakfast at home, putting them at higher risk for health problems. "Kids that don't eat breakfast and then load up on french fries at lunch are more likely to be obese," she said.
The scorecard component of the initiative will award gold, silver and bronze designations to schools that promote healthy practices such as holding fitness or nutrition nights, selling only foods and drinks that meet certain nutritional standards and providing a minimum of 30 minutes of recess a day.
The state requires schools to give children at least 15 minutes of recess daily. Many schools say it is hard to offer more because they must spend more time on state-mandated core curriculums so that students will pass standardized tests measuring their progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Warner said he will encourage schools to insist that healthier food be stocked in vending machines, a source of revenue for many schools. There are no state standards for what can be sold in such machines.
"You have the vendors coming in and saying, 'You're going to make more money if you sell chips, brownies and colas,' " Warner said. He believes students would adjust to healthier fare and spend money on it if the machines were stocked with more nutritious selections.
After speaking to the Tucker students, Warner played basketball with some of them, including fifth-graders George Perrussot and Ulises Giacomin, both 10.
"It was pretty fun, 'cause, well, you don't get to play with the governor a lot," Ulises said.
"He did more passing than shooting," George added.