South Beach Diet Influence Now in the Miami Schools

Written by Jason Thomas for

Mount Sinai cardiologist Arthur Agatston always said he wrote his best selling “The South Beach Diet” book because friends and family of his patients were constantly asking him for the diet, which he created to help his cardiac patients. He stated in his book that he could always tell a patient had serious heart problems, when the patient’s stomach entered the examining room before he or she did.
Agatston has “put his money where his mouth is” by creating the Agatston Research Foundation, which had more than $200,000 in assets in 2005 from the sale of the doctor’s diet book since 2003. One program sponsored by the foundation is the Healthier Options for Public Schools (HOPS). Its pilot program was launched in six Osceola County public schools last year and continues successfully this school year. The foundation added nine public schools within Miami-Dade County this year, as well. They are: Parkway Elementary (Miami schools), Scott Lake Elementary (Miami schools), Bay Harbor Elementary (Bay Harbor Islands Schools), Biscayne Elementary (Miami schools), Hubert O. Sibley Elementary (Miami schools), Madie Ives Elementary (Miami schools), and Ojus Elementary (Miami schools).
As Agatston says, the premise of HOPS is a no-brainer — give kids good food, they do better!  According to Marie Almon, HOPS nutrition director, registered dietitian, and creator of many of the South Beach Diet recipes, HOPS works with food service managers in the Miami schools and Bay Harbor to ramp up nutrition at lunch and breakfast. Menus have less sugar and fat, as well as more fruit and juice and reduced-fat milk. They are not putting the South Beach Diet into the Miami schools — just healthier foods.
Each school has a liaison for the program, such as Sheara Schwartz, a guidance counselor at Miami schools’ Parkway Elementary, who stated that most students believe all food comes from the grocery store. This underscores that HOPS is about educating staff and students, as well as providing nutritious food.
Danielle Hollar, HOPS principal investigator and her assistant, Jacy Gonzalez, create monthly newsletters that provide information on nutrient-dense foods for the students and their parents, activity packets for the students to make use of, and new posters to be displayed around each of the schools. Together, they visit the Miami schools to ensure they stay HOPS compliant.
When HOPS went into the Miami schools, representatives first conducted a feasibility study as a benchmark to measure the success of the program. They weighed and measured the students and recorded their Body Mass Index percentiles. These same measurements are taken at the beginning and end of each school year during participation in the HOPS program. The results are compared to students of the same sex and age at two “control” schools, Gratigny and Feinberg-Fisher (both are elementary level Miami schools) to determine if the results are from the HOPS program or just natural changes.
It is believed that it will take at least five years to produce any substantial and relevant results. To date, however, participating Miami schools have seen better attendance and more focused students, and the students are eating healthier.
The HOPS program currently costs the Agatston Research Foundation about $9 per child at the participating schools. There are about 9,000 children within the Miami schools and Bay Harbor school. Dr. Agatston has stated that there are too many kids today that are overfed and undernourished, even malnourished. He believes it is important enough to spend whatever it takes and is glad to do so.
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