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“I used to snack on sweets all day, ’cause I sit at a desk, and what else are you going to do? “People say, ‘You’re doing it ’cause you’ve got a boyfriend.’ And I say, ‘No, I’m doing it ’cause I want to live and be healthy.’” Take a cup of water, add sugar to the brim, let it sit for five hours.When you return, you’ll see that the crystals have settled on the bottom of the glass.When Arab armies conquered the region, they carried away the knowledge and love of sugar.It was like throwing paint at a fan: first here, then there, sugar turning up wherever Allah was worshipped. The Coke machine, the snack machine, the deep fryer.Hoisted and dragged through the halls and out to the curb, they sat with other trash beneath gray, forlorn skies behind Kirkpatrick Elementary, one of a handful of primary schools in Clarksdale, Mississippi.“He was terrified of gym,” Principal Walton told me.“There was trouble running, trouble breathing—the kid had it all.” “Of course, I’m not one to judge,” Walton added, laughing, slapping her thighs.
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Walton, Clarksdale born and bred, was leading me through the school, discussing ways the faculty is trying to help students—baked instead of fried, fruit instead of candy—most of whom have two meals a day in the lunchroom.
She was wearing scrubs—standard Monday dress for teachers, to reinforce the school’s commitment to health and wellness.
The student body is 91 percent African American, 7 percent white, “and three Latinos”—the remaining 2 percent. Take, for example, Nicholas Scurlock, who had recently begun his first year at Oakhurst Middle School.
“These kids eat what they’re given, and too often it’s the sweetest, cheapest foods: cakes, creams, candy. Nick, just tall enough to ride the coaster at the bigger amusement parks, had been 135 pounds going into fifth grade.
That was seven years ago, when administrators first recognized the magnitude of the problem.