Heavenly Ham takes message to schools Company provides Thanksgiving booklets

November 27, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Carolyn Melago contributed to this article.

Nearly 400,000 elementary school students around the country aren't just talking turkey this Thanksgiving -- they're talking ham. Heavenly Ham, that is.

They are learning about the first Thanksgiving using two curricula, developed by the Heavenly Ham food company and liberally sprinkled with references to ham, pork and meat.

Such lessons are an example of the increasing presence of corporations in the classroom, and many financially strapped districts think it's great.

But critics worry about blurring the line between facts and slanted information compiled by a company selling a product.

The curriculum was in use at Perry Hall Elementary School in Baltimore County this week.

"We're going to focus on spices today," Debbie Kates, a fourth-grade teacher, tells her class.

"And we're going to be using our Heavenly Ham booklets to help us," she says.

Silently, dozens of small hands open the books.

The lesson begins.

The students study world exploration through Heavenly Ham's 30-page workbook "Pilgrims and Progress: A History of Prepared Foods in America."

The Laurel-based company offers -- free -- Thanksgiving-themed workbooks to any elementary school that wants them.

On the first page are greetings from the folks at Heavenly Ham.

"One way in which we remember our country's heritage is by preparing a Thanksgiving feast each November," one greeting reads. "This feast often consists of foods the settlers ate! Heavenly Ham still prepares some of these foods today."

Nearly 400 schools -- eight in the Baltimore region -- took the company up on the offer This year, the second of the program, says Reagan Smith, a spokeswoman for Heavenly Ham.

An average of 100 students in each school will use the workbooks, she says, some throughout the school year.

Not bad for a relatively small company: Heavenly Ham, which also sells smoked turkey and barbecue ribs, has 150 stores in 30 states that sell hams, turkeys and barbecued ribs, along with other prepared food.

"This was thought up by the founder of Heavenly Ham," Smith says. "He wanted us to not just donate money to a good cause but do something on the local level."

Narrated by young pilgrims named Sam and Sarah and a Native American named Little Running Bear, the workbook lessons weave cooking, history, math and science into a child-friendly story.

A historical time line marks the year Christopher Columbus set sail and the day Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

The last date, marked with the company logo and the drawing of a ham, is 1985, the year the first Heavenly Ham store opened.

School officials once bristled at any hint of advertising in classrooms, says Darla Strouse, director of partnerships for Maryland State Department of Education.

"That's changed," she says.

With pinched school budgets and swelling classroom demands, many now talk of business-school links as the wave of the future. Most large companies are linked to schools in some way, Strouse says.

Nike athletic shoes sends shoe-making kits promoting recycling to schools; Exxon Corp. sends out ecologically oriented videos of Alaska, scene of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

For years, The Baltimore Sun has given newspapers to area schools to promote literacy.

"If it's done nicely and discreetly, and there is nothing willfully wrong about it, that's what we're looking for," says Strouse.

"We need to find places to link corporations. Kids aren't going to get all they need to get anymore just by reading, writing and arithmetic."

But studies show that, despite their media exposure, children often have trouble sorting out the schoolwork from the advertisements, says Tamara Schwarz of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education based in Oakland, Calif.

"Students are not able to fully understand the difference between advertising and curriculum," Schwarz says. "Teachers are authority figures in their lives, and [students] seem to understand these products to be endorsed by the schools."

"Pilgrims and Progress" is "not intensely commercial," Schwarz says, "but there is a heavy emphasis on meat."

Children in Kates' class at Perry Hall say they love the workbooks -- "We get to learn about pilgrims and stuff," says Jessica Li, 9 -- and don't think much think about ham when they're doing the lessons.

"I'll have turkey for Thanksgiving, and maybe I'll have ham for Christmas," says Meryem Ahmadian, 9.

Says Judy Sanford, principal at Lake Shore Elementary in Pasadena: "Here, there were 140 students who have benefited from it. It matched our curriculum so well in the fifth grade."

For the first five schools that sign up in each region, Heavenly Ham also donates a Thanksgiving dinner to be passed on to a needy family or organization.

Prives vary, but the meals are about $60 each at the five Baltimore-area stores. They include 7-pound turkeys, dinner rolls, two side dishes and a cheesecake.

The nearly 300 dinners given out nationwide and the workbooks cost the company about $50,000, Smith says.

Ken Higgins, co-owner of the five Baltimore area Heavenly Ham stores, delivered a Thanksgiving basket to Lake Forest on Monday and another to Perry Hall yesterday.

For him, the time and money are worth it.

"I sort of view it not only as good public relations but for a good cause as well," he says. "This is an opportunity to get to know people. It's up to us to walk in the door and be aggressive about it.

"Eventually, it all comes back to us."

Pub Date: 11/27/97

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