Nearly every McNary Heights Elementary student shows up to school at 8 a.m., 40 minutes before class begins.

They spend 15 minutes on the playground, then gather in their classroom to share breakfast.

It’s part of the “Breakfast after the Bell” program that promotes physical activity and a good meal to start the day, and the Umatilla school was recognized Friday with the statewide School Wellness Award for its efforts.

Through federal grants, child nutrition director Rikkilyn Larsen was able to secure funding to provide free breakfast for all students in class, which always includes a hot and cold option, as well as fruit and milk.

“I like how we have breakfast in the classroom because the kids don’t feel rushed,” said fifth-grader Cira Larsen.

The idea, said McNary Heights vice principal Nicole Coyle, is for students to meet before class, share a meal, and get to talk with each other before beginning the day.

“While they’re eating, they’ll spend time talking about the weekly character traits,” Coyle said. “This week, we talked about what it means to persevere.”

Fifth grade teacher Maximo Bedolla said he’s noticed his students are more alert after breakfast in class.

“It gets the kids more awake and ready to go. Sometimes we’ll have conversations about what’ll happen that day,” he said.

Angie Treadwell, the nutrition education coordinator for OSU Extension Service, nominated McNary Heights for the award. They were one of only three schools in the state to receive the honor from the Oregon Department of Education. The school received a $2,500 check that will go toward wellness programs.

“Their participation rate is in the high 90s,” Treadwell said of the breakfast program. “They make it easy for everyone to participate.”

Treadwell noted the other programs that Umatilla School District provides, such as its summer foods program where students can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for free at the school.

“That’s highly unusual,” she said.

They also had a guest speaker, former University of Oregon and NFL player Anthony Newman.

Newman, an Oregon native, congratulated students on their commitment to physical health.

“Your day is like a game,” he said. “My first year in the NFL, I didn’t eat before a game in Green Bay.”

Newman recalled that he felt lightheaded during the game, and went to his trainer.

“The first thing he asked me was, ‘what did you eat today?’”

“And then I got in trouble,” Newman said. “You have to make sure you put something in your system so you can perform at a higher level. If you put the right food in your system, it’s going to help you take that test.”

Newman said it’s important for students to exercise and eat right together, like a family.

“You may not even realize it, but you have role models around you,” he said.

Students were also rewarded for running the “McNary Marathon,” where students over a period of two weeks pledge to walk or run a certain number of laps around the track during recess. The top three boys and girls from each grade were given a certificate and a prize at the assembly.

“Teachers, staff and parents make sure our kids have a chance to celebrate exercise,” said McNary Heights P.E. teacher Brandt Lind.

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or jramakrishnan@eastoregonian.com.

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