Johnson Williams Middle School parking lot was packed with vehicles on Thursday night as hundreds of Clarke County residents turned out to sample food and receive free health care screenings at the Community Health Fest sponsored by the Clarke County Public School Division.
“The turnout tonight has been excellent,” said Clarke County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy. “I think that the excellent public response tonight shows they care about their health and the food that they eat. Most of us know that there are steps that we can take to be healthier and want to learn about the preventative steps to take better care of ourselves and our families.”
Murphy said that the most important impact about better health is what it means for students.
“Healthy kids learn better, participate more and make strong contributions to their community,” Murphy said adding “and we’re committed to this community.”
People attending last night’s event had many reasons for coming. Sodexo, the school division’s food service provider, offered parents a chance to taste the many new entrees, breads and desserts available to students through the school’s breakfast and lunch programs. Others took advantage of free health screenings provided by Valley HealthCare.
Tracy Mitchell, a certified health education specialist providing blood pressure screenings at last night’s event, said that her goal is to help people understand and implement lifestyle changes that can improve their health.
“We go to work sites and other events where we help identify health problems and make suggestions for improving the person’s lifestyle,” Mitchell said. “For example, many people with hypertension have no idea that they have the problem because the symptoms are very subtle.”
Mitchell counsels people to reduce the chance of developing hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, by quitting smoking, regular exercise, watching the foods that they eat, and reducing sodium intake.
Through last night’s testing Mitchell said that two people found out for the first time that they had high blood pressure.
“That’s why hypertension is called the â€˜silent-killer,’” Mitchell said. “People have the disease but aren’t aware of it.”
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People attending the event were full of positive praise for both the changes in the school’s food program as well as the division’s focus on health. Many parents expressed enthusiasm for introducing new types of food at school, like healthy chicken lo mien.
“This lo mein is healthy because it’s made with low sodium, lean chicken and lots of fresh vegetables,” said Scott Signorello, a Sodexo chef.
Signorello stood behind a hot wok where he magically transformed fresh peppers, chicken and a delicious sauce into a savory and delicious meal that visitors could then sample.
“Wow!” said one student who tried Signorello’s lo mein at the urging of a parent. “I like it!”
“I think that there is a growing trend in awareness toward healthy eating and lifestyle,” said Gina Hauser. “It’s also good to learn that healthy food can look good and taste good too.”
Signorello, who became a chef twelve years ago after completing the culinary program at North Hampton Community College, said that creating new dishes in just one of the reasons that he loves his job loves his job.
“It’s great to get kids to try new things,” Signorello said. “They still like chicken nuggets and hot dogs but I love to try and get them outside of the norm.”
Signorello’s enthusiasm for expanding student’s culinary choices is exactly what the Clarke County Public Schools are looking for according to Johnson Williams Middle School Principal Evan Robb who played a key role in organizing the Community Health Fest event.
“We’re trying to raise awareness about healthy choices and healthy lifestyles,” said Robb. “One way to do this is by presenting new and exciting food options to kids. So far, it’s been working very well.”
While new food choices are part of the solution to healthier living, what goes into the food is just as important according Barbara Antozzi, a registered dietitian and representative of Sodexo partner Venture Foods. As Antozzi provided samples of biscuits, cookies and breads to people attending the event last night, she said that new regulations are just being formulated regarding the amount of sodium that school foods should contain.
“Most school districts no longer place salt shakers on the lunch room tables,” Antozzi said. “That’s because processed foods contain a lot of sodium and the American public eats a lot of processed food. Unfortunately, that’s going to take a while to change.”
While parents expressed delight over healthier food options, there were also parents at the event who are simply pleased that their students now have one more reason for being excited about school.
Clarke County resident and parent, Tammy Lanham said that her 13-year-old son Eli now comes home from school talking about how good his lunches are.
“I ask him how his day was,” said Lanham “but he wants to talk about how good the meatball sub that he had for lunch was. So I decided to come here and see for myself.”
“Now I get what he is talking about. This food is really good!”