Gooding Elementary students are getting less fat than their counterparts in other districts.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna will join U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Janey Thornton on Thursday morning to honor Gooding Elementary School as the first and only school in the nation to earn the HealthierUS School Challenge Gold of Distinction Award.

The effort toward creating a healthy student body in Gooding has been a priority for several years but was partially accelerated by a South Central Public Health District report last year, which found that the state’s third-graders were fattest in the south-central district — 16.2 percent were obese, compared to 12.8 percent throughout the state.

“We’ll be celebrating the program, but Thursday is all about the kids,” Superintendent Heather Williams said. “We want the community to come out and help the kids celebrate. They’ve put a lot of work into it. They’ve walked thousands of miles (collectively) … They’ve pledged to live healthier lifestyles, and they have the evidence to show they’ve done it.”

The recognition — partly for the lunch program, partly for physical education — prompted the school to produce a YouTube video and invite first lady Michelle Obama, as well as other officials, to Thursday’s event. Contrary to a rumor in the community, Obama will not be there.

“We did get a call from the White House,”Williams said. “I thought it was a prank phone call … We also received letters from the president and the first lady, but she had a scheduling conflict.”

In addition to improving students’ nutritional and physical-activity habits, the school has involved Gooding public officials and parents. Elementary students recently proclaimed their health commitments to the Gooding City Council and developed different goals for each grade level.

The award initially surprised its participants.

“When we applied over a year ago, the USDA didn’t think any school could achieve the distinction because the qualifications were so rigorous,” Williams said. “It’s been a long, long process, but the program is now embedded … It’s not an award given out lightly.”

The Gooding School District, which purchases as much food as possible from local providers and teaches elementary students to read food labels critically, has also reinstated physical education to its requirements for graduation. The elementary school also serves breakfast in its classrooms every morning.

“Although we are a struggling rural school district we have a great story to tell when it comes to making our children’s health a priority and finding a way to make it happen,” Williams said.

The award ceremony begins at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Gooding High School gymnasium.

Damon Hunzeker may be reached at dhunzeker@magicvalley.com or 208-735-3204.

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