A group that has been tracking health trends among students of color today called on Denver Public Schools to step up its efforts to boost physical activity and improve access to nutritious food.

Antwan Wilson, DPS assistant superintendent, signs a pledge to work toward full implementation of the recommendations made in the Health Justice Report.

School officials say they couldn’t agree more with the conclusions reached in the “Health Justice Report” released this morning by Padres & Jovenes Unidos. Six of them endorsed the report and promised to do what they can to work for its full implementation.

Specifically, the group wants more schools to offer breakfast in the classroom, more improvements to the quality of the food served, and recess before lunch.

“These are things we definitely will commit to,” said Antwan Wilson, assistant superintendent of post-secondary readiness for DPS. He noted that if the district seeks a tax increase in November, part of it will go toward expanding physical education at district elementary and middle schools.

“What you are demanding is so exciting,” said DPS school board member Anne Rowe, one of the six district leaders on a panel receiving the report. “It’s vital that parent groups keep pushing. Yes, progress has been made but there’s much more work to do. Keep pushing the board of education to do what’s right.”

Health initiative launched three years ago

Padres & Jovenes Unidos launched its health justice campaign three years ago with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Organizers sent “health promoters” into the homes of some 230 DPS families, most of them Spanish-speaking and low-income, to educate them about health disparities and to survey them about what changes they’d like to see at their schools, said Monica Acosta.

“We know obesity rates have risen dramatically over 20 years,” said Acosta, who heads the Health Justice initiative. “For communities of color, conditions are even worse. Two of three Latinos are either overweight or obese. That’s pretty significant.

“For Latino parents, this is a really serious issue. We’re not exaggerating when we say our people are dying. If we don’t do something drastic now, our kids will not outlive their parents.”

Cuts to physical education offerings cited

Alicia Leon, a single mother of four, told the panel that while DPS has made great strides, especially around the quality of food served, problems remain.

She said when she was in school, she had physical education every day: “Today, my kids have PE every three days.”

Leon noted that from 2001 to 2011, DPS decreased its physical education teaching staff by 42 percent. The average minutes of PE every week per student fell from 125 to 54.

She also noted that 81 percent of parents indicated they wished their elementary-age children could have recess before lunch.

“This was first recommended to DPS in 2005,” she said. “Seven years later, only a handful of schools have implemented it.”

Finally, only 27 out of 197 DPS schools offer breakfast in the classroom, she said.

Theresa Hafner, director of food and nutrition services for the school district, said parents’ observations were justified.

“You want the same things I want,” Hafner said.

She reported that improvements to the quality of food served in DPS will continue. By fall, every school will have at least one salad bar serving locally-grown produce. No canned fruits will be served for the first few months of school, during the local growing season.

In addition, she said, 50 DPS schools will be participating in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program, a federal program that provides free fruits and vegetable snacks to students at schools with a high percentage of low-income students.

Though the program has been around since 2008, this is by far the largest number of DPS schools ever to take advantage of it, Hafner said.