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School Lunches : Dr. Nutrasaurus: Vegetable Dude : Education: In San Bernardino, strange furry creatures teach children healthy eating habits.


Inside the air-conditioned first-grade classroom, 6-year-olds giggle and squirm in their chairs. They can see the frame of an overgrown structure outside the window. It has a giant, wrinkly green tail and a big round belly. As the door knob turns, whispers of, "He's coming. He's coming," turn to "oohs" and "aahs." The door swings open and a size 20 tennis shoe, adorned with burgundy lighting bolts, crosses the threshold.

"Hi, Rex!" the children shout.

"Good morning boys and girls," Rex the Nutrasaurus says. "How is everyone today?"

Within minutes Rex, clad in his dinosaur-sized baseball outfit complete with cap, begins the weekly nutrition lesson. He jogs around the classroom naming the Four Food Groups. He explains that potato chips aren't as good for him as other kinds of potatoes. He tells the kids that he spreads the six or eight slices of toast he has each morning with jelly instead of butter and says that if he doesn't eat his fruit, he won't have enough energy to play baseball.

"Breakfast is very important, Rex," says Lisa Harris the registered dietitian who accompanies the adorable dinosaur on his classroom visits. "What did you have for breakfast today?"

"My mom fixed green eggs and dinosaur pancakes for me," Rex answers.

"How many of you had breakfast today?" Harris queries. Quickly a show of hands reveals that the children have learned a great deal about the importance of a morning meal. It's unanimous: Everyone had breakfast on this day.

"Let me show you some of the kinds of foods Rex has for breakfast," Harris says, reaching into her little red tote bag. One at a time, she reveals the contents: a plastic slice of bread, an apple. She also has a not-too-bad looking steak that she uses when her talk centers around the Four Food Groups.

Rex is one of three life-size mascots designed by a second grade student in the San Bernardino City Unified School District for use in classroom nutrition education. Along with Foodey-Kangarooey and Healthy Billy Bear, Rex the Nutrasaurus presents lessons in healthful eating to kindergarten through third graders twice a week. Sometimes, the mascots--the district calls them "critters"--bring wholesome snacks such as trail mix or raisins to share.

"(The mascots) are a tool that we use like getting a new piece of equipment," said John Peukert, director of food and nutrition services. "It's not a new concept: Mascots are used for selling houses, cars. They are a resource we can use for the kids."

Peukert had been looking for a way to change the eating habits of the children in San Bernardino Unified when he hit upon the idea of warm fuzzy mascots. He manipulated his budget so he could have the first one, Rex, designed.

Today, Rex is a community fixture. For the past three years drama students from Cajon High School have brought the dinosaur to life. Rex attends political lunches, fund raisers and high school pep rallies. Eventually Peukert hopes to have a "Rex and Friends" coloring book. "To make an impact on the students you have to change their eating habits at a younger level. That way when they get older, they won't have as many problems making choices," says Peukert.

Occasionally the mascots bring commodity items that are plentiful but often uninteresting to youngsters--cabbage, raisins, pineapple, shredded carrots and dressing--into the classroom. The children make them into a salad. Through the activity, Peukert and his staff discovered that while some children like coleslaw with raisins and some like it with pineapple, none of them like coleslaw with mayonnaise. A new recipe could now be developed for a coleslaw that the district could serve and that the kids would eat.

"Some students have never even seen certain foods, like lasagna," says Peukert. "So we expose them to the foods in class. The students roam around with the characters and they are encouraged to eat the new items. It is our goal to have as healthy a menu as we possibly can," Peukert said.

To meet that objective all of San Bernardino's entrees are made by hand. Chili, for example, is made with commodity ground beef and pinto beans. Turkey is roasted, cut into chunks and served with gravy. Toasted whole-wheat bread is served at breakfast. Fresh or canned fruits in light syrup or juice, animal crackers, frozen juice Popsicles and Jell-O are served for dessert. The target is to reduce sodium and fat in menus to adhere to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. "Amazingly enough, when we did some nutrient analysis we were already progressing well toward that goal anyway," Harris said.

This year San Bernardino was one of five districts in the country awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to find creative ways to incorporate the dietary guidelines in the school lunch menu. The additional funds have allowed Peukert to employ a second registered dietitian and to purchase the Foodey Kangarooey and Healthy Billy Bear costumes.

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