healthy kids…healthy community
In Mt. Lebanon, young children and their parents walk to school hand-in-hand, while teenagers navigate a series of paths to the high school. Post-morning rush, power-walking moms make their way to cafes to meet up with friends fresh from a class at the recreation center. Late afternoons are a mad dash for league sports, while children favoring clubs or less-organized activities ride their bikes to huddle with peers.
“We’re a community of over-achievers!” says Nancy Tashman, principal of Family Wellness Makeover in Mt. Lebanon, which helps families achieve better health through sound diet and exercise programs. “You look at our community and a lot of people appear to be at a healthy weight.” Sadly, that’s not the case in the region, which has high numbers of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Thanks to forward-thinking programs in both our schools and community, Mt. Lebanon is seen as a leader by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, which encourages children to eat healthy, increase their physical activity and decrease screen time. The Mt. Lebanon School District lunch program, developed by Food Service Director Tazeen Chowdhury, was featured in a symposium last year organized by the Pittsburgh branch of Let’s Move and held at Phipps Conservatory. All seven elementary schools received a bronze medal in the USDA Healthier U.S. School Challenge, an honor accorded only two percent of schools nationally. Healthy restaurants and food markets abound in and around Mt. Lebanon, and they’re keeping pace with the many pizzerias and ice cream parlors.
Mt. Lebanon’s history as a walking community continues to serve its residents well. Kids walk to school in every weather and morning carpools for slow-moving teens are balanced by the gaggle of students lining sidewalks in the afternoon. Our town’s hilly nature makes it an ideal proving ground for runners, and those competing in area 10K races, including Mt. Lebanon’s own Martha’s Run––where the biggest hills are in the first mile––favor steep Ashland Avenue and Hazel Drive.
There are ample options for active families at Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center. An indoor ice center leads to an outdoor swim center, and upstairs the schedule of classes includes Zumba, yoga, a dance program and “Sporties for Shorties,” where 3-6 year olds can have fun and improve their motor skills while participating in biddie basketball, kickball, parachute games and bowling. There are tennis and paddle tennis across the street, and budding cheerleaders can take a class that will prepare them to cheer on Mt. Lebanon Youth Football League teams. The golf course offers youth leagues. Baseball and soccer camps abound, with the Junior Dukes Soccer Camp a popular summertime choice for kids ages 5-11.
“Our philosophy is that kids should walk away every day with a new skill, and benefit from being part of a group,” says Jake Ouimet, director of the Dukes Soccer Camp and coach of the Division I Mens Soccer Team at Duquesne University. “We incorporate these skills into games so they might not even realize they’re learning soccer. At this age, kids are still learning through movement, and some of them don’t even know how to skip or gallop! Our kids learn to move.” Our community also has more than 200 acres of park land, five ball fields and eight basketball courts, and the key, according to Tashman, Roycroft Avenue, is how children pick and choose their activities.
“Kids are over-programmed, and there’s not enough time for free play. Organized sports are good, but our kids are specializing too soon—any sport five nights a week is not good for kids 12 and under.” Instead, says Tashman, children should cross-train, so they use their muscles in different ways and don’t get injured. It can be as simple as working in “functional fitness” activities such as mowing the lawn, taking out the leaves and trash or shoveling snow.
“Develop a time to walk with your teen,” suggests Tashman. “Tell them you need help. Say ‘Mom wants to do this race.’”
Complementing Giant Eagle’s organic options is Trader Joe’s, a boon for those looking to prepare healthy meals on a budget. Produce is fresh and organic, and packaged foods eschew preservatives. The Fresh Market, known for good meat, fish and baked goods, will open at the corner of Washington and Connor Roads this year. Washington Road restaurants, including Kous Kous Cafe and My Big Fat Greek Gyro, offer some wholesome ethnic food choices, while stalwarts such as Il Pizzaiolo and Little Tokyo have long been known for quality fresh preparations. Novel ingredients line the shelves at Eden’s Market, a health food store, and wellness expert Tashman suggests that home-cooked meals eaten as a family are a stepping stone to good health.
“Time is always a barrier to exercising and preparing food, but I worry that we’re raising a generation of kids who don’t know how to cook. We’re quick to reheat food or go out, and don’t sit down for family dinners. Parents need to model good behavior as much as kids need to grow up with parents who are active.”
Mt. Lebanon’s School Wellness Policy was developed by a committee that included the school nurse and food service director along with administrators, teachers and parents. It emphasizes lifelong physical activity and nutritious food choices that promote health and reduce obesity. Unfortunately, not everyone has welcomed leadership when it comes to what their kids eat. Case in point are the snack guidelines enforced for seasonal parties at the elementary schools. “We worked with the school district’s food guidelines to make it fun—that’s why we came up with an ice cream party,” says Julie Maselko, past president of the Foster PTA. Parents can meet the school’s dairy requirement with (nut-free) ice cream and add fresh fruit to balance the treat. Yet, there still is grousing. “Some parents still say, ‘You can’t tell me what to do,’” says Maselko. “There’s also a lot of confusion around the nut-free table in the lunchroom. I think it works perfectly and, yet, no one has to sit there. It is truly a choice.”
The choices are plentiful here when it comes to keeping our kids healthy, one more reason why Mt. Lebanon continues to attract families from across the region.