The students of the Texas Avenue School in Atlantic City have been leaving school with smiles just a little brighter and whiter than usual.

In recognition of National Nutrition Month - following February's National Children's Dental Health Month - fourth-grade students received a visit from registered dental hygienist and regional oral health coordinator Deborah Tracy, of Southern Jersey Family Medical Centers Inc.

For the first time, the school agreed to take part in the New Jersey Department of Health Children's Oral Heath Program "Sugar-Less Day to Prevent Tooth Decay."

As a part of the statewide education initiative, Texas Avenue became one of 21 locations in the state to participate.

"We want to make our smile last the rest of our lives," Tracy said to the group of more than 60 interested 9- and 10-year-olds.

In an interactive presentation, Tracy laid out the basics of dental hygiene and healthy eating habits - incorporating both fun, lighthearted props and images of unhealthy teeth.

Tracy recognized the importance of spreading her knowledge, especially to the young crowd.

She said that according to the most recent Surgeon General's report on oral health in America, 51 million school hours are lost each year due to dental disease. Tooth decay, she continued, is the most common chronic childhood disease - five times more common than asthma, and even more common among ethnic minority groups. And related suffering due to the "neglected epidemic" can cause issues with eating, taking part in learning and speaking.

Tracy asked students to imagine their mouths without teeth and the complications with communicating that would arise.

"We have the best students at Texas Avenue School in Atlantic City," the students said in unison - but unintelligibly, after Tracy asked them to say the phrase aloud with their tongues out, imitating a toothless pronunciation.

Tracy demonstrated the proper way to brush and floss, explaining that insufficient care or lack of care could lead to tooth decay, gum disease and bad breath.

Nearly every student raised his or her hand, claiming to use dental floss. Hands quickly dropped once Tracy asked how many used it daily. The dental hygienist added that children typically brush their teeth for 30 seconds. She recommended brushing for a full two minutes.

Tracy also touched on healthy eating tips, offering suggestions of healthy snack options, and urged students to limit their consumption of sugary drinks.

For example, opting for water over fruit punch would be key, she said - a 20-ounce bottle of Hawaiian Punch contains 18 teaspoons of sugar.

Before her presentation, Tracy explained that the event is intended for the fourth-grade age group, saying that demographic is the most impressionable.

"They start to make their own decisions regarding food choices," she said.

And although she recommended options for healthy teeth and bodies, she stressed that the title of her presentation was sugar-less - "It's not sugar free because that's practically impossible."

The students also were asked to design posters beforehand relating to the sugar-less theme, said Glynnis Reed, the school's art teacher.

Selena Quintanilla, 9, received a second-place ribbon, while Dianareli Dolores, 10, captured the essence of the theme, earning her the first-place title.

All students received an oral health care kit.

School nurse Barbara Grandy felt like the event was perfectly suitable for the direction the school was heading in terms of health awareness.

She admitted that obesity is prevalent in the school, but since instituting her wellness program, Project 4-Ever, in September 2012 changes have been implemented.

"In the past five years, healthy options within the school have been increasingly prevalent," she said.

Fruit and vegetable trays have replaced cake and cupcakes for student birthday celebrations. Stickers are given as rewards instead of lollipops, she said.

A mobile dentist also made two visits to the Atlantic City school in late February, offering cleaning and sealant treatments and dental recommendations to more than 60 students, Grandy said.

"This is excellent just to continue the educational part," she said of Tracy's visit.

Tracy agreed that early education is crucial.

"I think early intervention is key," she said, adding that often, dental hygiene education is offered to pregnant women. "The more they know, they better off they will be."

Contact Caitlin Honan:

609-272-7227