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Schools interested in participating in the Healthy FET Kids program can call Sandra Grunwaldt at 505-609-2171 or email sgrunwaldt@sjrmc.net.

FARMINGTON — San Juan Regional Medical Center's Healthy FET Kids program is looking to grow.

Since 2010, several local schools -- Navajo Preparatory School and Country Club, Esperanza, McCormick, McKinley, Bluffview and Blanco elementary schools -- have participated in the program, which encourages students to make healthy choices. It's an offshoot of the hospital's Full Engagement Training program, or FET, which started in 2004 and helps San Juan County residents become more physically active.

The Healthy FET Kids board meets annually to decide which schools to accept into the program, and the organization is hoping to expand to more schools soon.

The program begins with the Healthy FET Kids team visiting the school and presenting various principles to teachers and administrators, who then integrate the ideas and practices into their curriculum.

"The training for the teachers and administrators usually takes place in the summertime," said Sandra Grunwaldt, FET and diabetes education manager.

The two-and-a-half day training is a way of "teaching the teachers" about how to insert healthy lifestyle changes into the school day.

Some of the principles are as simple as integrating physical movement before class or after assignments. Other ideas involve adjusting ingrained habits. For example, instead of treating students to a pizza party for good behavior, the program encourages the school to hold parties that involve movement-filled games and healthy snacks. Some schools have also changed their lunch menus to include healthier options.

After the initial teacher/administrator training session, the FET team follows up by attending school health fairs and field days to reinforce the healthy tips and practices. The team uses plastic food models to demonstrate proper food portion sizes and teach the kids about the importance of making good food choices.

"We show them the difference between 'need' foods that our bodies need, and 'want' foods, which are lower in nutrients," said Nicole Clark, FET performance coach. "'Want' foods aren't bad -- they actually serve a purpose. We teach them that it's OK to enjoy small portions of less healthy foods. It's about emphasizing a balance, because no one wants to hear that a food is restricted. That makes them crave it more."

Finding ways to make exercise fun is another main goal of the Healthy FET Kids program, and the team often uses Therabands, which are similar to gigantic rubber bands that can be stretched to strengthen muscles.

"It's important for them to know why exercise and building muscles is so important, and that they don't have to go to a gym to exercise," Clark said.

Clark said the type of training offered by Healthy FET Kids is crucial for kids in San Juan County. She said that 22.5 percent of children in the county are below the federal poverty level, and 29 percent are obese.

"They really are in need of nutritional education," she said.

Grunwaldt and Clark said a positive by-product of teaching kids healthier eating and exercise habits is that they often take the ideas home, and their families are starting to practice healthier lifestyles.

"If a kid can go home and ask his or her parents if they can have apples in the home in addition Cheetos, that's a good pyramid effect," Clark said. "That's really all it takes. When they start to recognize that there is food that is good for them and that tastes good, and that movement is fun, it makes all the difference in the long run."

Additional topics presented by the team are the importance of keeping kids hydrated, as well as finding quiet time for rest and recovery.

"During the school day it's often 'go, go, go' and there's little time to take a mental break," Clark said. "It's also so important for teachers to have this recovery time, and one exercise we talk to them about it deep breathing and mental relaxation. It helps them re-focus and get back on track."

Leigh Black Irvin covers health and science. She can be reached at 505-564-4610 and lirvin@daily-times.com. Follow her @irvindailytimes on Twitter.