A Superintendent’s Manifesto: School Wellness and Personal Health

Recognizing her own unhealthy eating habits brings new vigor to a district’s pursuit of student health by MARSHA L. CARR-LAMBERT

As superintendent, I work diligently to meet the demands by the West Virginia legislature, catalyzed by the aggressive role of West Virginia’s First Lady Gayle Manchin, to fight child obesity. Recently, our state department of education agreed to enter the fight to curb the serious obesity and health problems among the children in our mountainous state.

West Virginia has risen to the second highest obesity rate among the 50 states over the past decade, according to the West Virginia Department of Education, and surpassed the national rate back in 2003 with a 6 percent increase in one year. The latest statistics indicate 31 percent of our student-age population is now overweight. Only Mississippi has a higher rate in a race no one wants to win.

Marsha Carr-LambertMarsha Carr-Lambert formerly served as superintendent of the Grant County School District in Petersburg, W.Va.

While sitting at my office desk late one evening, nursing my half-full can of warm diet soda, I thought about heading home but chose to read over our school district’s laudable wellness plan one more time before we would move on to implementation of the policy. A cloud overshadowed my exhaustion as I thought to myself, “How could we harangue children about the dangers of sodas, this ‘liquid Satan’ as described from the pulpit of healthy school advocates, when as adults we modeled the exact opposite? How could I, as a hypocritical leader of wellness in our school system, ask students to give up something that I would use intravenously if it was available to get me through afternoons?”

Evils of Soda
We had crafted the wellness policy with good intentions for the almost 2,000 students in our school community — students who were living in a small town or near one that’s considered rural by every definition. While pride kept many families from the poverty-level identification on required school forms, these were my students. According to 2000 census data analyzed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 24 percent of children in West Virginia are living in poverty, and roughly a third of our students reside in high-poverty neighborhoods. The fact is, more poor people live in rural America, small towns and small metropolitan areas than in large central cities, defying conventional wisdom.

Considering the message we were sending about the ill effects of drinking sodas, eating high concentrations of carb-rich foods and indulging in unhealthy snacks that contained high doses of sugar, I decided I should shake off these bad habits to encounter what I was asking of my students. I would eschew these bad habits. How hard could that be?

Before jumping into this healthy pit of hell, I began my quest for data. Ignoring factors such as exercise, stress or work demands, my focus would be on my actual eating habits, my food intake. I began to keep a food journal on what I was eating, when I was eating it and how much I ate. My latent habits were deplorable and inherently characteristic of many who work 12- to 16-hour days with little time off, travel extensively and spend considerable time in hotel rooms eating late-night restaurant food.

Healthwise, a quarterly newsletter produced by the Foothill Foundation, reports that 65 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, with obesity doubling in the adult population since 1980. Equally disturbing was what the research says about women. Overweight conditions are more prevalent among females who are racial and ethnic minorities than in non-Hispanic white women, and women of lower socioeconomic status are approximately 50 percent more likely to be obese than those of higher socioeconomic status. Among men, these health problems are more prevalent in Mexican Americans than in non-Hispanic whites or blacks.

Noting my own age, weight, socioeconomic status, height and some other factors, I began my metamorphosis by listing the foods and eating patterns I felt were not conducive to good health as described by the various studies and books I consulted. At the top of the list was my favorite evil, which would have to be sacrificed — my morning pot of coffee laden with artificial sweetener. Over time, using one or two packages of artificial sweetener no longer was enough to reach my nearly dead taste buds, so I had increased the dosage to six to 10 packages. I would also add a shot or two of additional artificial flavoring — sugar free, of course. After I consumed my morning pot of coffee, I made a large cup to go for my 20-mile morning commute.

My food cravings did not emerge until later in the day, usually squelched by some chocolate or whatever snacks were available. By late afternoon and early evening, I was hungry and did the most damage to my body by eating carbs in any form. Throughout the workday, I often downed one can after another of diet soda to keep my energy level up so I could stay active and complete the mountain of work demanded of me.

My Addictions
My evils were easy to identify — coffee, artificial sweetener, diet soda and processed food. Armed for battle, I prioritized my list. Because we were asking students to address their addiction to soda, I would eliminate soda first. I would go two weeks without consuming a soda of any form, switching to 100 percent juices, not from concentrate or water. If I survived the first two weeks, I would calculate my capacity or passion to continue this professed journey.

The first week, I could hardly move. I managed to make it through my work because I still had coffee, but I was noticeably tired in the afternoons when I used high levels of caffeine for a second wind. It was not one of my most productive work weeks, but I survived. By the beginning of the following week, I felt a significant change and, upon the completion of two weeks, I was emerging from an artificially induced fog. I no longer craved sodas, and I was becoming productive without afternoon intervention.

Next on the list of evils, I would tackle my abuse of artificial sweeteners. I noticed once I gave up artificial sweeteners, my coffee wasn’t the same sweet treat in the early morning hours, and I wasn’t even sure I liked it in raw form. The assault on coffee, my most-dreaded addiction, started much more easily than anticipated. I substituted morning drinks with a glass of heavy-pulp orange juice and a cup of either decaf tea or decaf, unflavored coffee if I wanted something hot. Keep in mind our relationship with food is much more than just nutritional in nature — we also have an emotional relationship that can be seasonal, according to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.

In several months, I went from a lifestyle poisoned with chemicals and preservatives to a healthier breakfast of orange juice and fresh fruit, to a lunch of salad and/or veggies and a similar dinner. When I need a snack, I devour unsalted nuts or unsweetened banana chips.

Taste Buds Revived
What I discovered was that my life did change. I no longer felt like a slave to the pronounced energy swings that guided my day. I maintained a steady and ongoing energy that was sufficient to carry me through my work without any drinks or false energy. I also slept more restfully and even felt happier.

But the greatest reward of all was my taste buds. I never would have believed taste buds could be numbed or dulled by poor eating habits. Suddenly I craved veggies. The cooked carrots tasted like they were soaked in sugar because I’ve discovered the natural sugar found in them. Pineapples, oranges and apples are unbelievably sweet and satisfy my cravings.

Suddenly, all I could think about was a generation of students who have been raised on preservatives with taste buds so deadened they don’t know what it is to really taste food. How do we ever reach them when the adults in their lives continue to model such behavior?

I do not consider myself a role model for anyone, but I can tell you what happens when you alter your lifestyle. I love tasting food again, and I can actually taste food. I have lost weight, slowly but gradually.

More importantly, I no longer obsess over my weight. Suddenly how my body looks is not a key to survival. It is not a priority. That was an outcome that I never could have expected, although Pollan, in his informative 2008 New York Times bestseller, contends good nutrition will create a better balance in our mental alignments.

When I began to stop the insane eating habits, other aspects of my life changed, as well. I no longer experienced mood swings that led to increased spurts of anger. My shopping habits changed and, astonishingly, I began to save more money than I had ever done in years prior. I tripled my savings in three months — and without any sacrifice. It just happened as a result of altering my emotional stability due to my dependence on foods.

Acknowledgment First
While I wasn’t a research subject like a laboratory rat with scientists documenting my every move and charting my feelings and energy level, I can tell you from my own testimony that the students and parents in my community must alter their lifestyles, too. Either that or we in public leadership must begin a whole new crusade to fight the war on obesity.

After sharing my newfound knowledge, my dentist spoke candidly during a recent office visit about his profession seeing more and more dental problems associated with a combination of sugar and acidic drip on teeth that he believes is a derivative of certain soft drinks.

So how did I apply this wealth of new understanding to our school district’s fledgling wellness plan? For years I supported state initiatives, not because I had firsthand experience, but because I trusted those who passed down these laws. Now, I no longer am leading a nebulous crusade. My battles are real.

My own wellness journey has been spiritual in terms of honoring my own body, and I believe that students who exhibit poor eating habits will find their overall health benefitting if they pursued healthier lifestyles. I do not have to be convinced of the need for a wellness policy, and I am not passive when it comes to fingering groups such as parent-teacher organizations, kindergarten parties or student events that violate the policy.

I understand our district’s wellness policy exists due to the increasing need to provide and promote better lifestyles for our students. I know firsthand the ill effects of what we are doing to this generation, and we are only beginning to recognize the real health concerns, dangers and costs. I now can support a policy I once implemented only as a duty outlined in my job description. I now believe in our policy and will fight for the continued care of our students.

So when a major soda company contract next comes across my office desk, it will be scrutinized to ensure it adheres to our guidelines. And I will go to bat for what I now believe to be one of the most important battles on behalf of students — the right to a better, healthier life.

This battle has multiple layers if we intend to fight. We can make a difference. We must find a starting point and make the necessary moves. Self-awareness and acknowledgment were the first steps. They were for me.

Marsha Carr-Lambert formerly served as superintendent of the Grant County Schools in Petersburg, W.Va. E-mail: carrlambert@frontiernet.net