Childhood obesity is occurring despite decades-long efforts by the federal government to ensure school kids are served nutritious food. This past week Michelle Obama unveiled the new nutrition rules for schools designed to combat the country’s high rate of childhood obesity. The emphasis is on calorie counts, nonfat milk, whole grains, and fewer saturated fats. The federal government, will reimburse school districts that follow the new rules an extra six cents a meal, but the School Nutrition Association, which represents the people who run the school cafeterias, said that probably wouldn’t be enough.
Only so much can be done at schools. Everybody at the Poughkeepsie anti-obesity conference sponsored by Health Quest back in November agreed that educating kids and their parents was the key to change.
Success both nationally and locally has been elusive so far. What’s being tried locally?
Laura Pensiero and Kristin Ring-Insogna have launched a program in Red Hook called “SEED: Smart Eating Every Day,” in which kids craft healthy-eating marketing messages.
Kristen Wilson of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County is overseeing a project called “Healthy Kingston for Kids.”
Melinda Herzog is director of “Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work & Play,” a program that is targeting three Ulster County communities: Kingston, Ellenville and Phoenicia.
SEED USA’s after-school anti-obesity initiative for rural youth is taking a page from Big Tobacco and getting some of its funding from the corporations whose advertising campaigns are problematic, according to program founder Laura Pensiero, a registered dietitian who has written a cancer-prevention cookbook and runs Gigi Hudson Valley, which consists of a restaurant, café, and catering division. The program has attracted supplementary funding from private donors. “Guilt is a powerful incentive,” Pensiero said,
SEED USA aims to empower kids by spurring them to create their own healthy food marketing messages and share them with their peers. Its after-school pilot program in Red Hook is scheduled to launch this March. Red Hook is an ideal school district and community to partner with due to its very motivated parents and access to local farms, said Pensiero. SEED’s five-year plan calls for the program to expand first regionally and then nationally.
The aim is “to create media messages that combat the negative messages kids get,” she said. Its board of directors is top-heavy with people from advertising, public relations and media. The idea is that the messages the children create will go viral and be more persuasive in getting kids to eat nutritious foods. “When they see their message come to life, the pride is extraordinary,” said Pensiero. “With our focus groups, we’re trying to identify how kids communicate and share messages.”
The ten-week pilot program offered to 30 sixth and seventh graders will be mentored by Red Hook high school students, Pensiero’s colleague Kristin Ring-Insogna explained at the Health Quest event. They’ll meet two afternoons or evenings a week at a farm, restaurant, or other food-related site close to school and be engaged in cooking classes, gardening, or other relevant activities. Their experiences will serve as the basis for their message.
Pensiero and Ring-Insogna said the focus groups can attract the “natural leaders” in the student population. Some teens hope their involvement will look good on their transcripts for college. The younger kids like that “it’s an activity, not a lecture,” explained Pensiero.
Audience response to SEED was lukewarm. The focus should be more experiential, said one audience member, rather than focused on message-making. Another person suggested that the program, in choosing a relatively wealthy, primarily agricultural community for its pilot efforts, was excluding needier kids. Someone else said the program seemed oriented toward those kids who are already slim and achievers.
Pensiero, who herself resides in Red Hook, responded that “we have to start somewhere.” SEED wasn’t just an after-school setting, she said. It planned to build a website and a blog, giving the participants “a creative license to communicate and share their message with other kids.”
Healthy Kingston for Kids (HKFK), a five-year program funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, aims to change the physical environment of the city to improve health among kids (it does address after-school snacks). “The vision is to make the city-friendly for pedestrians and bicyclists and provide easy access to affordable produce among residents,” said project director Kristen Wilson. “Over the next four years, we’d like Kingston children to be more active, by being able to walk or bike to school, and to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy snacks.”
At the end of its second year, the project, which is coordinated by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County and has 13 partners, has identified “infrastructural safety and social barriers to walking and biking” through GPS mapping by interns and volunteers. A “safe routes master plan” is being developed for two elementary schools — two additional schools will also be added — with assistance from the city. Wilson and her staff are also looking to introduce “walking school buses,” in which an adult “driver” escorts children to school on foot.
HKFK’s “Walk and Bike to School Day” this year attracted 3000 kids from eleven schools. A committee will advocate for passage of a resolution by the city’s Common Council to adopt a “Complete Streets” policy, which might involve zoning changes to transform traffic-clogged or barren streets into multi-used pathways utilized by walkers, bicyclists, and public transit vehicles, Wilson said.
Her organization is working with city officials better to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists when infrastructure changes are made. Another committee has been working to improve the snack choices in the public schools and has developed an alternative wellness policy that uses grams as opposed to the percentages employed in the Kingston schools’ policy to assess whether a food is nutritious; when both policies were tested among people at supermarkets and other locations, said Wilson, the alternative policy proved more usable. That committee also found that 40 percent of the snacks in school vending machines didn’t conform to the district’s wellness policy.
Yet another committee, in partnership with the Kingston Land Trust and the city’s parks and recreation department, has promoted the planting of vegetable gardens at eleven schools. A garden was also planted at the Everett Hodge Midtown Community Center, with the help of five high school students. The committee is working with BOCES students to develop a strategic plan that would ensure every household would have access to fresh food within a quarter-mile of home.
Wilson said HKFK hoped to develop a plan to create a city-wide coalition that would make its projects sustainable beyond the life of the grant.
Wilson’s colleague at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, Melinda Herzog, is overseeing a five-year program called Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work & Play, funded by a million-dollar grant from the state health department. It too is fighting obesity through improving the physical environment and availability of healthy foods. The project is focused on Kingston, Ellenville and Phoenicia.
The project, which also has numerous partners, including the county health department and HKFK, aims to improve the healthiness of after-school snacks and restaurant menus, with calorie postings required in chain restaurants. It plans to find ways to improve linkages and increase usage of under-utilized parks, create more open space, plant more community gardens, and improve nutrition and physical activity in childcare centers through special training programs for staff. (Staff at the Kingston YMCA, BOCES and Ulster County Community College childcare centers have done the training; Livingston Manor and Head Start are also planning to come aboard.)
A new website, www.healthyulstercounty.net, is listing Ulster County’s various health organizations and recreation facilities and posting restaurant menus. Creating Healthy Places also supports the alternative school wellness policy of HKFK. A community garden at the Queens Galley soup kitchen will be used to teach people how to garden and eat better. Six bodegas in the city are being encouraged to introduce more healthy foods.
Herzog said focus groups are meeting in Ellenville and Phoenicia to determine a “complete streets” policy for those communities. In Phoenicia, people were resistant to some of the standard designs and will adopt their own, she said.
The aim of these programs is no doubt laudable, but the tremendous obstacles in reducing childhood obesity specifically were apparent in the focus groups that convened after the presentations. Each addressed a different topic. Participants in the “school intervention” group noted the omnipresence of carbohydrates and processed food in school lunches and the priority the school districts have to put on revenues.
A representative from the Kingston school district noted the need for the alternate wellness policy — “the school nurses don’t understand the percentages” used in the current policy — but said there was resistance to changing the policy.
Another barrier, according to one participant, is school administrations which “don’t have time or care” to improve school meals,. School lunches are treated as a business, not an important part of kids’ health, added someone else. Nutrition education for kids is lacking, although opportunities exist in revitalized home economics courses, holding nutrition classes or related activity during downtime spent in study hall, and involving school nurses in school menus (or better yet, hiring a nutritionist, said one participant).
Another focus group, primarily composed of doctors and other medical professionals, concluded that more nutrition education should start with pregnant moms. The challenge is that doctors and pediatricians are pressed for time needing to communicate multiple messages to their patients.
“Bad food is cheap food,” commented one audience member. “We’re running into a wall when the amount of dollars spent conveys a negative nutrition message.”
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