There may be an epidemic of obesity in our children, but Griffin Creek Elementary School has been fighting it off for years with a lean food program, lots of exercise and support for a "culture of health" that landed them on the skinny end of a recent fat screening.

There may be an epidemic of obesity in our children, but Griffin Creek Elementary School has been fighting it off for years with a lean food program, lots of exercise and support for a "culture of health" that landed them on the skinny end of a recent fat screening.

While 32 to 36 percent of students at Washington, Phoenix and Jewett elementary schools were found to be overweight or obese, only 19 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls at Griffin Creek fell into that category in an April screening by Oregon Health & Science University nursing students from Southern Oregon University.

It's no accident, says nursing Professor Joan Smith.

"They've worked with their food service to eliminate choices that create health imbalance. The teachers, administration and parents promote healthy life choices," says Smith. "It's very entrenched at Griffin Creek. The children get the message from teachers and are motivated to be healthy."

Watching students romp and play games at lunch hour, Principal Ginny Hicks attributes her school's high marks to an emphasis on veggies, fruits and lean protein at the salad bar, a strong intramural sports program during lunch breaks and a three-year fitness grant for teachers and staff, with workout classes, gift-card rewards and classes at the Ashland Food Co-opon how to cook with real, not packaged, foods.

It's a vision you have to keep after every day, says Hicks.

"On the PA system, every day, we do the nutritional reminder of what to eat for lunch, so it's a constant exposure about the importance of diet and exercise," says Hicks. "It's part of our culture here that we need to move more and eat less. Everyone gets sucked into it. It's contagious."

Working with food provider Sodexo, Hicks has pared back most fatty snack foods, such as pizza, sugary desserts, refined grains and anything with high fructose corn syrup. With a $25,000 grant from the Oregon Education Association, she has brought in workout trainers from the YMCA and Southern Oregon Boot Camp to tone up teachers and staff, give cholesterol screenings and award $5,000 in gift cards for those who reach fitness goals.

Fifth-grade teacher Clayton Gillette cuts his lunch time to seven minutes of actual eating, then heads outside with a teaching partner to lead 40 minutes of physical education, a program slashed in schools during the 1981 recession.

"We don't get enough PE, what with all the mandates for reading, writing and math. Inter-school PE was cut, so we started intramural for fifth- and sixth-graders," says Gillette. "Kids need to learn to play. They're not playing on corner sandlots anymore, if you drive around and look. We do soccer, flag football, basketball, softball and dodgeball, their favorite. It improves their mental fitness, too."

Active in softball and basketball, sixth-grader Willow Smith is a top 2-kilometer runner. Saying she favors the fruits at the school's salad bar, she adds, "I only eat junk food once in a while."

The school holds a monthly 2-kilometer run, for which they do practice runs every Friday — and a yearly, community-wide 2K and 5K run called The Agony of DaFeet. The event, scheduled this year at 5 p.m. on June 2, draws about 200 runners, including many students.

Griffin Creek's culture of fitness isn't just dished out to young students, but is embraced, on a voluntary basis, by employees, with ready support by parents, says Hicks.

Special education assistant Ron Fawcett, a former college athlete and local high school basketball coach, says he fell into the downward spiral of weight gain. But using the workout classes and nutritional guidance from the OEA grant, he dropped 70 pounds and has at least that much — "another human body" — to go.

"It's hard to be heavy," he says. "You slow down and stop. You watch more TV. You get fast food and it all starts catching up with you. Then you see other (staffers) lose weight and become happier and healthier. I saw three people lose a whole person (in body weight), and I decided to take my life in my hands and just do it."

Fawcett walks two miles every evening and has shifted his diet to include fish, chicken and other lean meat, avoiding simple carbs, though it's hard to break a lifetime of habits and start eating vegetables and drinking lots of water, he says.

Though far from overweight, the school's office manager, Linda Johnson, says she took her first step to fitness by weeding out her family's lifelong habit of eating high fructose corn syrup, a man-made sweetener found in pop, sweets and other foods.

"We went from daily to seldom on it," says Johnson. "It was a staple. I grew up on it. Now I feel not bloated anymore and I've become a label-watcher, looking for sweeteners made of fruit juices."

First-grade teacher Linnea Fox, who just turned 50, spied looming obesity and committed to the program with Zumba, weight-resistance training, scads of fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins, and ended up doing two half-marathons and dropping 30 pounds.

"It helped with my attitude, and I have more energy," says Fox, who is training for the Portland Marathon.

"We developed a rule. If it's man-made, don't eat it," says Hicks.

"That means no crackers, pizza, pasta or packaged meals," notes Fox.

Griffin Creek participates in the Presidential Fitness Program started by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago and partners with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, started by President Bill Clinton. The school won a bronze and is now competing for the silver award from the Alliance.

In addition to food and exercise, what Griffin Creek did right, says Smith, was "getting parents on board and realizing this is a problem and we need to make changes."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at