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Two Cass Lake-Bena elementary school students meet with lawmakers

Two Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School students met with Minnesota lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently to discuss their school district's efforts to encourage students to make healthy lifestyle choices.

Third-graders Deanah Johnson and Xavier Whalen traveled to Washington, D.C., in April to represent the Cass Lake-Bena School District at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation event titled "Connect with Congress: Healthy Schools Program Leadership Training and Congressional Meetings."

Traveling with the students on the April 20-23 trip were Cate Belleveau, Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School enrichment coordinator and gifted and talented educator, and Deanah's mother, Dena Johnson.

The schools in the school district are pilot schools in Alliance for a Healthier Generation's Healthy Schools Program. The program aims to eliminate childhood obesity and inspire young people in the United States to develop lifelong, healthy habits.

RWJF, which supports the Healthy Schools Program, paid for the team from Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School to go on the Washington, D.C., trip.

In the nation's capital, the local team joined teams from schools across the United States that participate in the Healthy Schools Program for two days of leadership training and meetings with lawmakers.

"I liked everything, really," Deanah said about the trip. "I learned to be ... healthier."

"I learned in order to stay healthy, you need to exercise and eat healthy, not just exercise," Xavier said.

On Capitol Hill, the Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School team visited with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, also of Minnesota.

The team helped educate the Minnesota lawmakers about the Healthy Schools Program and shared stories about the changes taking place in the Cass Lake-Bena School District as part of the program.

The school district, for example, has made many changes to align its offerings with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's school meal and beverage guidelines. These changes include offering more fresh fruits and whole grain products, as well as a salad bar for middle school and high school students. Other efforts by the school district to promote healthy lifestyle choices include promoting more physical activity among students.

Stressing the issues

While meeting with the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Belleveau spoke about the high rate of diabetes and people struggling with obesity on Leech Lake Reservation, where the Cass Lake-Bena School District is located.

Belleveau and the students emphasized that diabetes and obesity is more than a health problem. For children, she said, having diabetes or being overweight can affect their academic performance when they don't feel well and can lead to school absences.

Holding a doll, Deanah told the lawmakers a story about a girl named Memengwe, which means butterfly in Ojibwe. The story represented how some American Indian youth have transitioned from healthy lifestyles, including eating squash, venison, fish and wild rice, to lifestyles involving less activity and eating junk food.

The Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School team also told the lawmakers about the wishes of students at their school. Before leaving for Washington, D.C., Deanah and Xavier briefed students at their school about their upcoming trip and asked them what they wanted them to tell the lawmakers.

"What we would like to do is get more time for recess," Xavier said.

At the school, students have 10 minutes of recess daily.

Students at the school also said they want more active after-school activities.

At the end of the visits with each of the lawmakers, Xavier invited them to visit the school in May to see the changes the school district is making. The invitations included lunch with students and a walk in the Chippewa National Forest.

Coleman has agreed to visit the school May 28, according to Belleveau.

Seeing the sights

While in Washington, D.C., the Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School team visited several sites, including Lincoln Memorial, National World War II Memorial, Washington Monument, the White House, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

"My favorite was the Lincoln Memorial," Xavier said. "Then my second was Washington Monument."

Also, Klobuchar gave the team a personal tour on Capitol Hill that included a visit to a room where the president meets with senators.