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Women in Action offers up healthy choices at schools

Gloucester second-grader Joseph Miranda grabbing some fruit for a snack last month.

Photos by Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Gloucester second-grader Joseph Miranda grabbing some fruit for a snack last month.

On a day when the school year was winding down, Gloucester second-grader Joseph Miranda had a soccer ball, a backpack, and plans for a full afternoon. When classes were over, he would play soccer, ride his bike, and go to the bowling alley, he explained.

But first, a snack.

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In the Veterans Elementary School cafeteria, Miranda had filled his plate with oranges, grapes, and celery selected from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including lettuce that was grown in large planting boxes on school property.

“It’s healthy food,” he said.

The midafternoon nutritional boost came courtesy of PowerSnack: Good Food for Hungry Kids, a program funded by Women in Action and run by the Open Door, a local food pantry. The free, five-day-a-week program provides not just food but also nutrition education for the kids, and a “cooking matters” class for adults in the family. It is run in conjunction with a YMCA fitness session at the school, where 70 percent of the children are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, and 44 percent are categorized as overweight or obese.

“We don’t expect every kid to love every healthy food, but if they don’t try them, they don’t know which healthy options they like,” said James “Jay” Harrison, the North Shore regional director for the Food Project who coordinates a number of food-related programs at the school. “What we’re really trying to do is build up the habits and practice of eating well, rather than just telling them to eat well.”

The school-grown lettuce came courtesy of Backyard Growers, another Women in Action program that had students tending and harvesting their own vegetables.

Women in Action is an initiative of the North Shore United Way that has focused on raising money to support efforts to combat childhood obesity, and to encourage healthy eating and physical fitness.

To support its efforts, the group is hosting Summer Soiree, a fund-raising gala set for 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Tucks Point in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Tickets are $35; for more details, visit www.nsuw.org.

Powersnack and Backyard Growers are among the five programs serving Beverly and Cape Ann that benefited from the regional United Way organization’s latest round of grants, with a total of $30,767 awarded in June.

“In philanthropy and raising money, women are very passionate about this kind of cause,” said Margo Casey, executive director of the North Shore United Way. “We never intended it to be exclusively women . . . but we wanted to get the call out and do outreach to women who would care about this issue.”

The North Shore United Way serves Gloucester along with Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rockport, and Wenham, and awards approximately $800,000 in grants each year, according to Casey. Three primary areas of focus are youth and child development, financial stability, and health.

The Women in Action program has provided approximately $30,000 in additional funding over the past two years to deal with the health issues of childhood nutrition and obesity.

“It’s getting a lot of attention nationally, and there’s a concern, even in the suburban communities, about children not eating well and not getting physical activity,” Casey said. “We’re particularly looking at underserved families, because it’s expensive to have kids eat well, to have produce and all that. I believe families want to have their kids eat well, but sometimes the expense becomes a real issue.”

By supporting programs like the Backyard Growers, which also provides families with a planting box, materials, and technical assistance to help them grow their own healthy food, United Way receives significant value for its funding dollar, she said, adding, “Those pieces are extremely important to us.”

Among the programs funded in the latest round of grants:

 PowerSnack, run by the Open Door, Gloucester. $10,000. Building on the success of the popular plan, it will put more money into buying healthy food to meet student demand.

 Backyard Growers and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Incentive Program, run by the Cape Ann Farmers Market. $10,000. The gardening program covers all five Gloucester elementary schools, and the new partnership with the federal Women, Infants, and Children program allows participants to buy twice the amount of produce using food stamps at the farmers market.

 FIT-tastic Kids Program, run by the YMCA of the North Shore, Beverly. $2,500. A free eight-week healthy lifestyle program held at the Y, it mixes nutrition and physical activity for kids ages 8 to 14 from low-income families.

 SNAP Incentive Program, run by the Beverly Farmers Market. $2,667. A program for people in low-income neighborhoods in Beverly and surrounding communities to purchase produce from the market using the SNAP benefit. Like Cape Ann, the incentives double the value of food stamps.

 Happy, Healthy Fit Kids Program, run by the Beverly Children’s Learning Center at the Cummings Center, Beverly. $5,600. The program will provide weekly fresh fruits and vegetables to children at the center, ages 3 to 13, plus two six-week “Cooking Matters” courses for families of learning center children.

The school programs will begin in September, and the others will begin this summer.

This is the first time that Women in Action will fund the Beverly Y program. The other four programs are all variations of programs that were funded over the last year, and have been expanded, said Casey.

“They all do a lot with a little,” she said.

David Rattigan may be reached at drattigan.globe@gmail.com.
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