Fellowship Story Showcase
West Virginia is among the top five on just about every national chronic disease list. The state leads the nation in diabetes and obesity, according to the Gallup Healthways poll.
Surveys show that many West Virginians do not realize obesity is a leading cause of many chronic diseases. Many also feel those diseases are hereditary, and there is nothing a person can do to prevent them.
The state's children raise major red flags for the future. West Virginia University screens thousands of schoolchildren every year. In 2010-11, they found that 24 percent of fifth-graders have high blood pressure, 26 percent have high cholesterol, and 29 percent are obese. Eighteen percent of kindergartners and 23 percent of second-graders are obese.
There has been little public discussion of this problem. "The Shape We're In" project aims to stir up that discussion. Written and photographed by Annenberg fellow Kate Long, it will be divided into three parts in The Charleston Gazette, the state's largest newspaper:
• Children at risk
• Programs that work
• Communities making a difference
Some segments will be accompanied by West Virginia Public Radio pieces.
Part 16: Better focus
KERMIT, W.Va. -- On a chilly morning, at 8:20 a.m., coal trucks rumbled past Mingo County's Kermit K-8 School. Inside, a cook was starting to sear 60 pounds of beef for homemade beef stew for lunch. Another was stirring cornbread batter for 342 kids. A third was starting crust for enormous berry cobblers.
"We're cooking for a lot more kids this year," said veteran head cook Lena Lackey. They're also making food from scratch, five days a week. Yes, she said, it's more work than heat-and-serve, "but it's the only solid meals some of our kids get."
At 8:35 a.m., the seventh and eighth-graders came rolling through the cafeteria line, laughing and jostling, sticking breakfast items in paper bags -- yogurt, oranges or apples, cereal, milk, cheese bread. Not a Pop-tart or doughnut in sight.
The kindergartners ate in the cafeteria. The seventh and eighth-graders took their sacks back to their classrooms, "grab-n-go" style.
"A lot more kids eat, now that we've moved breakfast up to after first period," said Principal Dora Chaffin. "When we served it before school, a lot skipped it because they like to socialize then."
Nationwide, schools with free breakfast for all report greater attention in class, fewer discipline problems, and fewer absent or tardy children.
People who eat a regular, healthy breakfast tend to concentrate better and are less likely to be obese, research shows, partly because they don't overeat as much later.
Mingo County schools are pushing hard to improve school food and, especially, to get more kids eating breakfast because:
• Seventy percent of Mingo children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
• In 2009-10, West Virginia University found that 28 percent of Mingo fifth-graders have high blood pressure and 36 percent -- more than one in three -- are obese.
• There is not one grocery store in the entire county.
• One in five West Virginia homes sometimes didn't have enough food in 2011, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center study.
Down the hall, breakfast was being delivered to the fifth-grade classroom. Aides rolled a cart into the classroom, packed with breakfast choices.
All the children ate. A visitor asked, "How many of you would not have eaten breakfast if you weren't eating at school?" All but two raised their hands.
"The kids are focusing a lot better during lessons since this started," their teacher, Annette Martin, said. "They aren't sitting there thinking about being hungry."
More meals, more money
In August, state Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple challenged all school systems to try at least one new way to get more kids to eat school breakfast. Forty-five counties pledged to try. "It just makes sense," Marple said.
Mingo County and six other counties are also serving every child free this year as part of a statewide demonstration project. They are trying to cook less fattening meals five days a week from fresh ingredients.
"In the coalfields, it's not always possible to get all the fresh ingredients," Maynard said, "but we're managing to have fresh fruits and vegetables every day."
The percent of Mingo students eating breakfast has soared from 36 percent to 78 percent, compared with 2010, a 118 percent increase. Lunch eaters have jumped from 68 percent to 75 percent.
Related Story: The Research — Regular breakfast helps you lose weight, concentrate
Breakfast and obesity
Research shows that, if people eat a healthy breakfast -- not Pop-Tarts or doughnuts -- they are less likely to become obese, because they are less likely to snack and overeat at lunch. A protein-rich breakfast increases a person's ability to focus and concentrate, research shows.
Breakfast and concentration/performance in school
• National study published in Indian Pediatrics shows regular breakfast increases concentration, attention in schoolchildren
• Tufts University study shows increase in attention and memory retention in schoolchildren who eat regular breakfast. Effects were greater in children who ate oatmeal, compared with those who ate commercial cereal. So what children eat for breakfast has effect too. Similar studies have shown that egg breakfasts have more beneficial effect than muffin breakfasts.