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In good taste
Sardines and beans help students learn more, says a teacher who serves them as class treats
By Laurel Rosenhall -- Bee Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005
A funny smell hangs in the air in Lauren Ayers' classroom at Caroline Wenzel Elementary School as students pile in from morning recess.

With the kind of glee usually reserved for shouts of "ice cream!" the children skip through the door and cry: "Sardines!"

All but two students head for the plastic cups full of fish Ayers has placed on each desk. They dig in with delight.

The unusual morning snack at this school in Greenhaven is the cornerstone of Ayers' mission to improve childhood nutrition in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Ayers believes her students behave better and learn more when they eat a steady diet of sardines, pinto beans and flax meal.

The foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are considered essential to human health. Studies have shown omega-3 fatty acids boost brain function, lower high blood pressure and reduce depression.

Nutritionists say many Americans eat too many of the unhealthy fats found in processed foods and too few of the nutritious fats found in some fish and plants.

The imbalance, they say, is one factor contributing to high rates of obesity among American children. Almost one-third of California students were overweight in 2004, according to the state Department of Education.

The prevalence of childhood obesity makes the current generation of American youngsters the first in 200 years that could have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, have proposed eliminating soda and junk food from vending machines on the state's school campuses.

Ayers wants to take the idea further. Schools shouldn't focus only on taking away unhealthy foods in machines, she says, but also on adding nutritious items to cafeteria meals.

And reducing obesity isn't the only reason she thinks students should eat better. A good diet helps children pay attention, according to academic studies as well as Ayers' anecdotal evidence.

That's why she spends about $35 of her own money each month giving students daily snacks of fish, peanut butter and bean soup.

"To me it's worth it because they're so much better behaved and I'm less crazy as a teacher," she said.
Ayers' students are second-and third-graders in special education because of disabilities related to communication. But Ayers said she would give the nutritious snacks to any class.

How did she get them to eat the sardines?
By offering them up on a dare. Ayers introduced the snack by saying only the bravest students would dare give sardines a try.

The tactic apparently worked. On a recent school day, many children lined up for seconds after finishing their first cup of fish.

Experts applaud her efforts.
"Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, good for you and kids don't get enough," said John Burgess, a professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University in Indiana.

Burgess researched consumption of omega-3 supplements among children deficient in the fatty acid who also had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He found improved attention and uplifted moods among those who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids, though the supplement had little effect on hyperactivity.

Better attention is obvious to Raynette White-Walls, whose son Cedric Stone adores eating sardines in Ayers' class. The 9-year-old boy now asks his mother to buy sardines at the grocery store, she said.

"I've noticed tremendous change," White-Walls said of her son's learning.

Previously, she said, if she asked Cedric a question, he frequently responded by repeating the question. Now, she said, "I ask him, 'What did you read? Can you explain it to me?' Without a doubt, he comprehends it."

When she goes grocery shopping now, White-Walls said she carries a list of foods Ayers recommends and makes sure to buy Cedric lots of fresh fruit, refried beans and smoked oysters.

Ayers has developed a Web site loaded with information about her nutritional philosophy.

And she hopes to expand her school nutrition program next year. She is searching for grant money that would allow five campuses to overhaul their school lunches by removing foods high in transfat and replacing them with meals rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fresh produce.

The question then will be whether students outside Ayers' classroom will also learn to love fish and flax meal.
If her own experience is any indication, the odds are good.

As Ayers scurried around her room picking up empty plastic cups at the end of snack time, she offered students the dregs from a can of sardines.

"I have a few extras here if anyone would like thirds," Ayers said.

Instantly and eagerly, three little hands shot into the air.

What is omega-3?
Omega-3 fatty acid is a type of polyunsaturated fat essential to human health. The brain and the retina of the eye are composed largely of it. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish (such as salmon, sardines and mackerel), flax seed oil, canola oil and walnuts.

For information on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids:
Omega-3 Information Service
Lifting Educational Achievement with Real Nutrition
University of Maryland Medical Center

Lauren Ayers

James Curiel, PhD
Professor, Sociology

Don Glines
Educational Futures

Hasan Hanks

Jeanie Keltner, PhD
Editor, Because People Matter

Michael J. Kwiker, D.O.

William Mora, M.D.
Health Associates Medical Group

Susan Montoya

Cynthia Mulcaire

Carlina Nowrocki

Robert O’Brien, MA

Suiying Saechao
Member LEAF at Hiram Johnson HS

Charity Smith
President Youth Congress at Sac High