Lyndonville Program Teaches Teens Healthy Eating

06/06/11 12:50PM By Charlotte Albright, Steve Zind
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VPR/Charlotte Albright
Cassie Eliot serves chicken she prepared for the weekly dinner at her high school, Lyndon Educational Resources Network (L.E.A.R.N)
(HOST) According to the Vermont Department of Health, of all students between eighth and twelfth grades, fourteen percent are overweight. Twelve percent are obese.

To encourage schools to foster healthier habits, the Department hands out awards for programs that seem to be getting results. This year, 39 schools were recognized. One stands out, not just because it's tiny, but also because it faces unusual challenges.

VPR's Charlotte Albright recently dropped by the Lyndon Educational Alternative Resources Network, or "LEARN" in Lyndonville.

(Albright)  In a rambling white house on Main Street, L.E.A.R.N got its start almost ten years ago. That's when Kate Campbell and her colleague Ed Ryan quit their teaching jobs and decided to give local kids loitering in the village green during school hours a safer place to hang out, to eat lunch, and maybe get some tutoring. Now, with state accreditation and tuition vouchers, they can even earn a high school diploma. There are only about a dozen students, with about half that many teachers. Some kids have autism, others struggle with mild learning disabilities or emotional problems, and several need to lose weight.

(Nathan Mitchell) "My name's Nathan Mitchell, I'm fourteen, and I come to L.E.A.R.N. I've been here for about a year."

(Albright)  Today Nathan and a handful of classmates are learning with teacher Janet St. Onge how to create a healthy food or cosmetic product and devise advertising for it.

Based on solid research, Nathan Mitchell is imagining an energy drink that has all the nutrients you need, but none of the caffeine or sugar that can hurt you.  He says he used to eat chips after school every day, but now chooses fruits or veggies. He just wishes his family would follow his example.

(Mitchell) "Let me tell you it's tough. They don't like good food."

(Albright) "So how do you get good food if you don't get it at home?"

(Mitchell) "I've started a garden."

(Albright) Right in his back yard. He's growing tomatoes, lettuce, peas, corn, and even horseradish. But there's also another way these kids are taking control of their diets, right at school.

(Cassie Eliot) "We have more strawberries, sugar-free whipped cream, seltzer water, juice, chicken."

(Albright)  That's Cassie Eliot, in the check-out line at the supermarket next to the school. She and a couple of helpers have a big assignment for tonight.

(Eliot) "I gotta cook dinner for everyone."

(Albright)  About two hours later, fifteen people -- assorted students, parents and teachers -- sit around a gaily decorated table in the school's central hallway. As Cassie graciously serves chicken and mashed potatoes and fruit salad she collects plenty of compliments. School co-founder Kate Campbell sits back in her chair and smiles. Teaching these kids to eat well and exercise, she says, is paying off in visible and invisible ways."

(Campbell)  "We're getting there because we have students who are absolutely obese -- morbidly obese. Who say things to you like, Now I understand. Now I know that I, because I am learning this in school, can buy the right kinds of foods and I can get exercise in. I can do what it takes to make me better - to make myself a better person. And I am worthy of that."

(Albright)  Everyone clamors  for seconds. But Cassie has made just enough dinner to feed them what they need, and no more. 

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright, in Lyndonville.

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