By Billy Cox
SARASOTA - Trying to hold the attention spans of a hundred or so restless young Booker Middle schoolers gathered in the gymnasium bleachers is like being the ringmaster of a cat rodeo. Constantly pacing, 24-year-old Josh McClelland has to punctuate his lecture with frequent shouted commands of "Listen! Listen up!"
McClelland finally connects - at least for a few moments - when he tells them about the times he wanted to kill himself. He talks about his reading disability ("Growing up, I thought I dumb") and abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father ("He took out of lot of anger on my family that we didn't deserve"). He tells them his mother pulled him through it, and that he hopes to buy her a house someday. He urges them not to despair:
"Just because your father's in jail, your mother's in jail, or you come from a background of hurt, like I did - where you come from is irrelevant to tomorrow. You choose who you want to become."
But perhaps inevitably, McClelland begins losing altitude as he circles around to the ultimate point of his scheduled 45-minute presentation. The point - he insists amid the growing fitfulness - is that his teenaged audience has horrible eating habits, and that if they hope to succeed in school, they need to understand the link between nutrition and grades.
In fact, McClelland and his girlfriend/business partner, Ashley Drummonds, are speaking to the students because a) their startup high-protein pancakes venture won the financial backing of a "Shark Tank" judge on ABC this year, and b) they were invited by reading teacher Brenda Zofrea.
Zofrea is no stranger to community activism. She has networked with Manatee County Schools on child safety and literacy programs, detailed at her www.letsbsafe.com website. Zofrea's most immediate concern is that her eighth-graders won't make it to their appropriate reading levels by the end of the school year, at least in part because of the junk food they eat in the mornings. Right now, according to Florida Standards Assessments metrics, they should be at Reading Level 3; instead, most are floundering at Reading Level 1.
She has polled her 72 students about their breakfast habits. They tell her Pop-Tarts, chips, candy, sugar, empty calories in plastic wrappers. Worse, 60 to 70 percent tell her they eat nothing at all. "They come slouching into class like they're a hundred years old; they have no energy. And they have access to free breakfast here," Zofrea says. "And they eat nothing.
"They come into my class every day - every single day, all day, starting in the morning to the last class of the day - saying, 'Ms. Zofrea, do you have granola bars, Ms. Zofrea, do you have crackers?'" But urgent cravings aren't the only consequences of an unhealthy diet. Especially after the sugar rush burns off. "I'm telling them, 'Please open your eyes, please put your head up.' No wonder they can't stay awake all day, right? No wonder they have trouble learning."
Zofrea isn't a nutrition expert, but she knows the value of protein, how it powers virtually every system in the body, like the hemoglobin that transports oxygen through the blood. And she knows her middle-schoolers aren't getting enough of it.
An episode of "Shark Tank," in which contestants appeal to celebrity entrepreneurs to invest in their business proposals, caught Zofrea's attention earlier this year. A couple of personal trainers from Tampa were pitching a product called ABS Protein Pancakes, which pack a whopping 25 grams per serving, or roughly half the recommended daily allowance for adults. Josh McClelland and Ashley Drummonds - it was her formula - wound up cutting a deal with FUBU founder Draymond John: $120,000 in seed money in exchange for a 42 percent share of the company.
Zofrea contacted Drummonds and McClelland about coming to Booker and sharing their knowledge with her students. Both were enthusiastic - reaching younger demographics is among their marketing goals. But the presentation, which includes free samples of pancake mix to nearly 300 students, costs $3,000 to stage. Zofrea didn't have a budget for it. But her luck turned a few months later, when she ran into a friend, Peter Helfen, at a craft show.
"She started talking about some of the issues she was having with her kids, about how so many of them weren't eating proper breakfasts or coming to school hungry," says Helfen, a Sarasota estate manager. "Well, I'm not wealthy, and $3,000 isn't a small amount of change for me, but I try to do something once a year for kids. And I don't think any kid should have to go hungry."
Thanks to Helfen's generosity, Drummonds and McClelland made their first-ever presentation to a public school. Their daylong project started at 7:30 a.m. in the cafeteria, which didn't go smoothly. A malfunctioning oven failed to properly fluff up the pancakes. At least the kids had samples to take home. The pair then divided the students into gender groups. In taking the boys, McClelland drew the shorter straw.
The boys were antsy, easily distracted. An instructor had to occasionally intercede by barking commands of his own. McClelland left his listeners with wristbands that read, "I Choose Who I Am." He didn't know if anyone will get the message. Afterward, he confided, "If I reached one kid, I've been successful."
Drummonds' girls, on the other hand, were far more focused and inquisitive about nutrition. When she finished her lecture, many lined up for individual consultations. Some of their concerns were so personal, Drummonds declined to share them. But the learning curve bent both ways.
"I learned school systems have no idea what kids should be eating," she said. She rattled off examples of what she had seen - "little packages of pre-made bagels filled with strawberry cream" - and what she had not seen, like fresh fruits. "Even orange juice," Drummonds said. "One glass of orange juice takes eight oranges. Nobody eats eight oranges in one sitting, but it's considered healthy. But there's 40-50 grams of sugar in a glass of orange juice, so they get all this sugar and then they crash and fall asleep."
Dan Washmuth, head of nutritional education for the Sarasota school district, concedes that sugary cinnamon rolls qualify as grains in the menu, but adds that his office teaches 10,000 students a year about well-rounded diets. As for the failure of so many students to take advantage of free school-provided breakfasts, Washmuth is puzzled. He says bus schedules are typically timed to give students 15 to 20 minutes to grab breakfast before classes begin.
"I ask why they don't eat and they say there's not enough time, or they're just not hungry."
After Drummonds and McClellan packed up and left, Zofrea asked her kids to jot down what they had learned. Many of the responses seemed perfunctory. But McClelland appeared to have accomplished his goal with at least one student letter.
"Dear Josh," it reads. "I'm sorry for my peers being disrespectful, throwing paper, mocking you and breaking the wrist bands. We were informed that the oven broke so we understand how they came out bad, and hope you get to buy your mom a house."
McClelland and Drummonds are undaunted. They say they're ready to do this again.