New York City Schools Tight on Gym and Cafeteria Space

HOST INTRO: According to the New York Department of Health, one in five kindergartners in the city is overweight. The causes are not a big surprise: Lack of exercise and poor eating habits. Alex Colletta visited a school in East Harlem that’s trying to fix the problem. COLLETTA: Michael Panetta is the principal of River East Elementary. It seems like he always has a dozen things going on at once. PANETTA: I have like a sixth sense for when stuff is going on out there. (0:03) He’s been at the school for eight years. The last three as principal. But he isn’t a product of the New York public school system himself. He grew up in Michigan. PANETTA: When it was nice out, I wasn’t allowed to be inside. So like the expectation was you’re outside all day and not cooped up in the house. (0:06) Things are different in New York City. It’s not as co – mmon for kids to be outside by themselves. They spend a lot more time indoors. PANETTA: A lot of my kids go home and just sit in their apartment from three o’clock until the next day at school. (0:05) The public school system here is the largest in the country. There are over a million students. Squeezing them all into the small space that is New York is a difficult task that all public schools face. Especially finding room for students to run around and exercise. PANETTA: Being able to accommodate two to three periods of gym is really, really challenging. (0:06) Couple that with poor nutrition and you’ve got serious health concerns. Panetta says he sees students walk in every day with cinnamon rolls, chips, and candy bars for breakfast. PANETTA: So I think it’s just access to spaces for kids to play and the food that a lot of our kids have in their households. (0:09) River East Elementary just moved to a new location this year. Now, they have access to a full-size gym and a PE teacher, Tim Dimick. Two years ago, Dimick’s position didn’t even exist. River East shares the gym with another school in the same building. But Dimick says they’re lucky to even have that. DIMICK: There are other schools where they don’t have access to a gym all the time, or at all. Yeah, I mean, if I could wave a wand I’d have a full gym all the time. Sometimes it feels a little crowded, you know, particularly with the bigger kids, in just half a gym. (0:16) It’s 2:40 in the afternoon and kids are getting out of school. It’s been 4 hours since some of them had lunch. Schools like River East Elementary don’t have enough cafeteria space so they have to split kids into separate 20-minute lunch times. Here, K through 2nd grade eat lunch at 10:40 in the morning. Schools are also trying to promote better eating habits. One thing they’re doing is called CookShop—a program from the Food Bank for New York City. It teaches children and their parents how to cook with healthy ingredients. BENNETT: The classroom CookShop is broken up into three parts. (0:03) That’s Vylmary Bennett. She’s been running the program at River East Elementary for four years. BENNETT: So they have where they discover what these particular fruits and vegetables are. Then they explore them. They cut them, they smell them. And then the third one is the actual cook shop where they use those particular ingredients to make whatever it is that’s on the menu for that particular class. (0:15) Bennett says they do a weekly class with students and a workshop with parents once a month. They have about eight or ten families who show up regularly. BENNETT: They tend to come with their kids, so their kids also tend to eat whatever natural stuff we’re making, whether it’s a corn salad or berry mesh. I wish more parents would come. (0:11) Dimick, the PE teacher, agrees that parent participation is an important part of the solution. He says they try to get kids interested in physical activity at school so that they take that behavior home. DIMICK: Ultimately, you’ve also gotta have the parents and families involved in being sure the kids are active after school and on the weekends and, you know, really that the whole family is so the kids see that behavior modeled. (0:14) Schools are making progress. The childhood obesity rate is going down in the city. But it’s going up in adults. According to a recent study by the New York City Health Department and NYU School of Medicine, nearly 1 in 3 adults in New York City is obese. Alex Colletta, Columbia Radio News.

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