New Orleans students call for end to unhealthy foods and lack of exercise

A dance party erupted in the cafeteria at the New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School in Uptown. More than two dozen students and teachers from Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools demonstrated a choreographed “instant recess” to promote their latest ideas for improving schools.

Offering healthier foods, increasing physical activity in classrooms and transforming the punishment system were among the 12 recommendations New Orleans students laid out for education officials at a July 21 news conference.

Rethink, a community partner with the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University, focused its summer group on studying the connection between unhealthy diets and behavior problems. The students took that connection further to show that kids who are punished with suspensions and expulsions are more likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Our school food culture does not offer us protection from childhood obesity and diabetes. Every day we are exposed to a lot of unhealthy food,” said Alana Hall, an eighth-grade student in Rethink.

“Let’s take snack Friday as an example,” said Arieanna McKnight, a ninth-grade Rethinker. “We had chips with cheese, nachos, chocolate bars, candies and juices. You could buy all these salty and sugary foods from teachers and staff members.”

New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent John White invited the Rethinkers to his office to work with his staff on implementing their recommendations. He said he also hopes to redirect how school dollars are spent, shifting it from alternative schools, which are reactionary measures, to programs like those the Rethinkers requested.

The students’ recommendations were broken down into four categories: healthier foods, regular exercise, stress management and fewer suspensions.

First, they requested school gardens that are open outside classroom hours and asked that teachers not reward students with candy. Then they asked for regular exercise, including a 10-minute “instant recess” twice a day. Most students said their schools forego physical education classes or allow students to sit out.

“To meet the national recommendations that youth be physically active 60 minutes a day, students can use these physical activity breaks before, during and after school,” said Marsha Broussard, program director at School Health Connection at the Louisiana Public Health Institute. She pointed out that online videos are available to show schools how to implement instant recess. “It’s not a substitute for physical activity programs, but it’s something that can be added on.”

The Rethinkers also said schools should address student stress. Stress, lack of play time and unhealthy foods all contribute to behavior problems that can lead to suspensions and expulsions, the students said. They asked for restorative justice circles, which result in behavior agreements instead of expulsions.

Down the road, what started as sugary snacks and skipped recess time could lead to a life in and out of the justice system, they said.

“When students eat unhealthy sugary foods, have no exercise and have a lot of stress, they act out in schools,” said Vernard Carter, a high-school senior and Rethinker. “And when they act out, they get suspended, and when they are suspended a few times they are expelled, which basically puts them in the juvenile justice system.”

For more information on Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, visit

Photo courtesy of Andy Cook,

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