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10 years later, school still sugar free and proud

  • Story Highlights
  • Sugar has been banned at Georgia elementary school for a decade
  • School required fitness classes, overhauled menu and banned junk food
  • More studies required to see if methods would improve student health
  • Recent research suggests banning soda not curbing kids' consumption
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By Madison Park
CNN
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(CNN) -- The children in the cafeteria drink low-fat milk, shovel corn kernels on their sporks and munch on tuna sandwiches on wheat.

One of the most requested vegetables at Brown Mills Elementary School is broccoli, according to its principal.

One of the most requested vegetables at Brown Mills Elementary School is broccoli, according to its principal.

For dessert? Peaches.

There are no bake sales here, no birthday cupcakes, no cookies or ice cream. Don't even think about bringing sugar to Browns Mill Elementary School.

As schools around the country have begun removing soda and junk food from their premises, the elementary school in Lithonia, Georgia, was ahead of the curve, cutting out sugar 10 years ago under the watch of principal Dr. Yvonne Sanders-Butler.

"Childhood obesity, it's our tsunami, it's our Katrina," she said. "If we're really thinking about the best interests about the young people today, then we will take a stand."

Some may think the steps are draconian, but a glimpse inside the school's cafeteria shows hundreds of students coolly sipping their milk and juice and eating, instead of screaming, squealing and swapping snacks. Soothing jazz music plays in the cafeteria. Video Watch Dr. Sanders-Butler in the school cafeteria. »

The school day starts with an hour of jumping jacks, exercising and dancing -- one morning to the beat of "Whoomp! (There It Is)" as the children bounce and sing along. Students also eat a breakfast of omelets, soy milk, organic cereal and turkey sausages.

"When students are healthy, they do their best work..." Sanders-Butler said. "We want to make sure we're providing foods that will not only nourish the body, but also brain foods."

It turns out the kids don't hate the healthy stuff.

"One of the most requested vegetables now is broccoli..." Sanders-Butler said. "Can you believe that? The kids love broccoli."

In the first six months of the sugar ban, disciplinary incidents went down 23 percent, counseling referrals decreased 30 percent, and in the first years of standardized test scores, reading scores improved 15 percent, she said. Browns Mill was named a national blue ribbon school and a Georgia school of excellence in 2005.

The school since 1998 has shown improvements in test scores, truancy rates and counselor referrals, said Dr. Terry Huang, the director of obesity research for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. More data such as body mass index would be needed to see whether the students became healthier, Huang said.

"We have preliminary evidence showing benefits of the program in terms of the school level indices, but we're not able to draw definitive cause-and-effect conclusions due to insufficient data," Huang said.

While the National Institutes of Health is not involved in studying the school, Huang said there is interest; 17 other Georgia schools are replicating the Browns Mill program.

Simone Davis, who was a fifth-grader when the school banned sugar, credits the program with ingraining lifelong lessons about healthy eating.

"I was one of the heavier students in elementary school, so I really lost a lot of weight and just became healthier overall with the changes," said Davis, who is now a slender junior at Spelman College. "Kids were hyper, bouncing off the wall and those things changed."

Sanders-Butler overhauled the school's menu, nutrition program and vending machines after battling her own weight troubles and surviving a stroke at 39. When she sought to eliminate sugar from the school, many resisted and warned her she was endangering her job.

"If we don't do something, we're talking about children that are probably going to lose their life at some point. We have to take a stand," she said.

Schools are now pulling soda from their vending machines and cafeterias. California schools can sell only water, milk and fruit and sports drinks that contain a specified amount of sweeteners. Beverage distributors such as Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice, and flavored and unflavored low-fat and fat-free milk at all elementary and middle schools by the 2009 school year.

Research into the effectiveness of these kinds of interventions in schools is beginning, but recent studies suggest banning soda at school has minimal impact.

A study in Maine compared the soda intake between students at high schools where soda was permitted and schools where it was banned. Researchers found that reducing soda availability did not decrease consumption, according to the 2008 study published in the Society for Nutrition Education.

Another study published this year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that limiting soft drinks at school decreased consumption by 4 percent.

Removing junk foods from schools may not eliminate the problem.

What happened in Browns Mill was the result of a number of factors, said Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, former U.S. Surgeon General, who now chairs the Johnson and Johnson Diabetes Institute. He credits the principal for creating "an environment in her school where it became a normal part of the curriculum to learn about what's important as far as diet."

"It really focuses on the children and having the children learn how to make healthy decisions for themselves," he said. "Second, it created an environment within the schools that encouraged the kids to make those decisions. By having healthier foods, by having physical education, by having vending machines, that gives the children the opportunity to make healthy choices."

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Browns Mill fifth-grader Cori Bostic said she would prefer honeydew, watermelon or cantaloupe to cake anyway.

Wincing slightly, the fifth-grader said, "Junk food makes my stomach hurt."

CNN's Matt Sloane contributed to this report.

All About Elementary and High School EducationDiet and NutritionHealth and FitnessNational Institutes of Health

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