Jennifer Taylor held up a box of chocolate milk so small it rested in the palm of her hand.
She faced a captive audience of elementary school students who were eager to show off what they were learning in the Healthy Food for Life classes at East Hampton's John M. Marshall Elementary School.
"How many grams of sugar do you think are in this little container of chocolate milk?" she asked.
Hands shot up. Answer: 22 grams.
Taylor, a certified health coach, picked up an empty container of vanilla ice cream to check the nutrition label.
"There are 16 grams of sugar in one serving of ice cream," she announced. "There is more sugar in your milk than in your ice cream."
The only people she shocked were the adults in attendance at a special evening session held recently to accommodate working parents.
Healthy Food for Life, which began four years ago at East Hampton Middle School, is now also taught in every elementary school from East Hampton to Montauk and to preschoolers at the East Hampton Day Care Learning Center. The program teaches students to be "food detectives" by deciphering nutrition labels and ingredient lists. They also learn about taking care of their bodies from the inside out.
Taylor said she emphasizes the new federal nutrition guidelines, which recommend that each meal consist of four equal parts: fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains.
"You only get this one body," Taylor said. "Why not start taking care of it when you're little?"
When Taylor brought up the chocolate milk, Jake Klarman, 9, nearly jumped out of his seat.
"The fourth-graders have stopped drinking the chocolate milk!" he pronounced.
His mother, Marie Klarman, explained that after learning about the drink's sugar content in Food for Life, Jake and his classmates have tried to organize an effort to stop drinking it -- though not all of the fourth grade is necessarily participating. However, Klarman took it a step further by sending a letter to the local school board explaining the situation and asking chocolate milk sales be stopped. She said she got a thank-you note from one board member, but no action has been taken.
Students take the lead
Ginny Reale, a retired health teacher at the middle school and now a Healthy Food for Life teacher, is familiar with seeing students mobilize.
In 2004 she co-authored a wellness program at the middle school that included a screening of the documentary "Super Size Me." Afterward, students decided they wanted healthier school lunch options, so they boycotted cafeteria food and brought in their own lunches in large enough numbers that they caught the media's attention.
That incident spurred East Hampton resident Doug Mercer to create the East Hampton Wellness Foundation with a vision of turning the East End into a model of wellness for the rest of the country.
Mercer, 76, who ran a family shipping business for 25 years, has no formal education in the field but considers himself a "living health experiment." He decided to take his health into his own hands around 1999, after watching his father endure multiple strokes before he died.
Seven years later, the organization has reached more than 3,000 children through Healthy Food for Life, and more than 500 adults have graduated from its six-week vegan challenges.
The foundation's program covers a broad range of health topics, including highly visual lessons that show students the effect certain foods have on the body -- like fat in arteries, whole foods versus processed foods and the importance of exercise and good self-esteem.
Favorite classes are always those that include food, Taylor said. She teaches students to make things like sorbet, green smoothies and kale chips.
Taylor said the mission is to empower children to take control of their own health and make informed decisions.
"They didn't know what a whole food was versus processed food," she said. "They didn't realize what they were eating. Now they're waking up to that, and they're excited about it."
"I was inspired by the children," he said. "The kids are the future of our country, and they are so excited about making their own food choices."
Lesson for parents
Sitting in a recent Healthy Food for Life class, the excitement is apparent. The children grab at empty boxes, try their best to pronounce complicated ingredients and then compare their findings with friends.
Devon Mansir, of East Hampton, attended the evening courses with his 8-year-old son, also named Devon, to figure out why he had taken to pulling all their food from the pantry to examine the labels.
"Nothing with sugar in the first three ingredients," young Devon reported proudly, referring to a tip he had learned in class. "That's basically dessert."
"This has been a learning process for all of us," his father said, adding that his son voluntarily cut back on his favorite snack, fudge-striped cookies. "He's helping teach us."
Reale said the way students absorb and accept the information is remarkable.
"They have an awareness," she said. "And they are really good food detectives. They are always asking phenomenal questions."
But at the end of class, as students munched happily on healthy snacks, Jake had something to ask: "Are there any more kale chips?"