School Nutrition Program Takes Up Obesity Fight

Kids take healthy eating habits home from school programs.

February 9, 2010, 5:34 PM

Feb. 11, 2010— -- As an elementary school nurse, Stephanie Miklosey saw the effects of the childhood obesity epidemic right before her eyes.

At Philadelphia's John Welsh Elementary, Milkosey saw students who had a range of obesity-related conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

"When you start that young, they've got bigger health risks," she said. "It starts younger. It gets worse."

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In fact, a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that obese children are almost twice as likely to die before reaching age 55 than those who are a healthier weight. And with one in three children across the nation considered overweight or obese, many school nurses may also relate to what Miklosey has seen.

But what's different about this north Philadelphia school is that the community was not willing to sit back and watch its children become a part of the statistic.

The school brought in the local non-profit group, The Food Trust, to implement cost-effective but life-changing standards for the school. The group replaced soda with water, juice and milk, and replaced junk food in vending machines with snacks containing less than 200 calories.

And it didn't stop there. In math class, students solve problem sets around nutrition. The school even committed entire days to nutritional eating -- like banana day.

"They were 25 cents apiece," said Milkosey. "And we sold over 400 bananas."

Milkosey said since the school's nutrition makeover, more students are adopting healthier habits in and out of school.

Sixth grader Ivanna Esteves is convinced that healthy eating is not only important but also cool. Esteves, who said she used to snack on chips, Cheetos and soda, but now reads nutritional labels to find out if what she eats is healthy.

"When my mom goes food shopping, she buys, like, grapes and apples and oranges -- and me and my sister, we always eat the grapes in one day," she said.

Eliminating Obesity: It Takes a Village

School nutrition programs such as the one at John Welsh Elementary School may be fostering healthier children.

According to a two-year study published October 2009 in Pediatrics, simple adjustments in food options available to children cut the rate of overweight and obese children in half.

In Philadelphia, Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, and lead author of the study, works with The Food Trust to implement school and community campaigns for healthier food options. Their programs include the Corner Store Initiative, which stocks store shelves with healthy foods local children say they will actually eat.

In fact, Philadelphia has experienced an emergence of new community physical activity classes, along with the opening of a new supermarket.

Pilot programs like Philadelphia's are among many initiatives that President Obama and his newest task force are looking at as models to combat childhood obesity.

Complementing the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign launch Tuesday, President Obama announced the formation of a task force charged with solving the problem of childhood obesity "within a generation."

The president also plans to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which expired September 2009. Obama is proposing a $10 billion budget increase -- $1 billion a year for 10 years -- to help provide nutritious school lunches to those who qualify.

"A part of it is rewarding schools that take nutrition and physical activity very seriously and providing additional resources for them so that there's a financial incentive attached to it," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a member of the task force.

Because of these programs, Milkosey sees fewer students checking in with stomach aches and other more-serious conditions she related to unhealthy eating.

"It keeps them in the classroom," she said. "And that's where they need to be."

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