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Thursday, March 27, 2014 12:01 am

Eat real. Move more.

The genHkids campaign to get children healthy

Dr. Kemia Sarraf, founder and director of genHkids, holding a “generation healthy” child.

As a response to what was being called an epidemic of obesity in America, Dr. Kemia Sarraf felt it was time to take action in Sangamon County. It was 2008. With Illinois near the bottom of average state rankings for overweight kids and as national child obesity rates approached 30 percent, the danger was obviously real and ominously present in our community. Concerned folks around the nation, from the White House down to the local schoolhouse, rallied to increase awareness of the issue and began implementing programs to educate people in healthy lifestyles.

In Springfield, Dr. Sarraf, backed by a lifetime of dedication to social health issues, determined that a coming together of area businesses, organizations and individuals could implement life-healthy concepts to improve the situation locally. She conceived the idea of helping to create and encourage a healthy generation she called “Generation Healthy.” So “genHkids” became a reality.

“GenHkids was born out of what I felt was lacking in Sangamon County. I discovered others who felt the same way – that we needed a partnership coalition approach to combat childhood obesity and other related problems,” Dr. Sarraf explained. “I am a true believer that collaboration will bring us much closer to a solution. Every one of us holds a piece of the puzzle that will ultimately create a healthy community.”

A Destination Dinner Table meal demonstration teaches families how to prepare a nutritious, cost-effective meal under the guidance of a genHkids executive chef.


The program continues to grow from concept to reality as the original group of Dr. Sarraf and several mostly young mothers as core volunteers, transforms into a mature nonprofit organization. Now with full-time staff members, a governing board and several community business members, all working together for a healthier, more active world, the genHkids Coalition moves forward in Sangamon County. The results of decreased disease rates and other outcomes may not be fully appreciated for lifetimes to come, but some immediate improvements are obvious.

The year 2013 was a successful and expansive year for the organization. From inaugurating fundraisers and raising community awareness, they were able to hire full-time staff members for the first time. For the first three years there was only one part-time staffer and several volunteers – including Dr. Sarraf, who has always worked on a volunteer-only basis – keeping the ideas afloat. Last year they launched two major initiatives, a K-8 school lunch makeover in the Ball-Chatham district and a permanent community garden area off of East Cook Street. The organization headquarters, located in a second story office near Chatham Road and Wabash Avenue, is a bubbling hub of activity with committed staffers and volunteers on the go. Dr. Sarraf leads the way with her unstoppable enthusiasm and unwavering dedication to the goal of healthy kids and healthy families everywhere.

“When it comes to our children, I haven’t met anyone who threw their hands up in the air and said they don’t care or don’t want to do anything to help out,” she said. “Everyone cares about children, and through that we can reach out to consider how to build healthier communities to benefit us all.”

A healthy, balanced, made-from-scratch school lunch inspired by genHkids concepts to meet new federal standards, set in an old-school cafeteria tray.

The list of organizations working together under the umbrella of genHkids is amazing, powerful and diverse, including groups from national, state and local levels. No place shows more of what can happened when concerned individuals from all walks of life and levels of society converge to work on a problem than in the Ball-Chatham school lunchrooms. The school district gave genH Coalition a generous opportunity to implement a program directly in the school kitchens. There the food, before mostly pre-packaged, highly processed and reheated, now comes fresh, cooked from scratch by trained school chefs. The results are stunning and prove that, if given the choice, kids will eat quality, healthy foods. As a bonus, the working adults enjoy learning and using the skills necessary to prepare the meals as well.

“I can’t say enough about the administration that allowed us to come in there and the women in the kitchens who worked tirelessly to come up with workable menus,” Dr. Sarraf said. “They’re seeing results in academic performance, with more responsive and alert students. The chefs and kitchen staff members trade menus and ideas, making the workplace more enjoyable. We are now feeding nearly 3,200 kids under this program.”

Economics is an important factor in the success of a program like this. GenHkids makes sure the schools do not incur extra expense through mandating programs and leaving the school alone to complete the task. The coalition of organizations working together to implement the program, along with genHkids staffers to help in the transition, is essential in accomplishing the mission, according to Dr. Sarraf. With budget crunches becoming more like budget demolitions, any extra cost or extra work can be seen by some as unnecessary steps in a system that is already complicated and expensive.

Dr. Latha Pandrangi, Ph.D., Food Science and Nutrition, former director of the genHkids Nutrition Action Team, instructs students on healthy food choices.
When outsiders come in to “improve” a situation, care must be taken to explain the desperate nature of the childhood obesity problem. When school menus are changed, everything from getting kids to try new things on the menu (taste buds get used to lots of sugar and salt in processed foods) to getting food vendors to understand the changes (it’s easier to ship and sell a huge can of green beans than to get them fresh) come into play. But nothing succeeds like success. The school district is behind the genHkids project all the way as improvements in student actions are obvious.

Recently Springfield’s School District 186 allowed the genHkids Coalition to implement a similar program at Matheny Elementary School. The hope is that it can spread from there once it becomes established and successful.

In 2011, U.S. government guidelines on types of food served in school lunches were altered for the first time in 15 years. In a period of budget cuts, school districts were required to increase whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fruits and other healthy alternatives and decrease students’ of sodium and sugar. With some 60 percent of District 186 students receiving some type of reduced fee lunch, and assuming students whose families can’t pay for school lunches may also be having trouble affording nutritious meals at home, the need for healthy, appetizing food at schools becomes more important than ever. Dr. Sarraf doesn’t feel the guidelines go far enough in caloric restrictions and using “real” food. She approaches the subject with an attitude of caring, community responsibility, saying we should put our money where our children’s mouths are.

“GenHkids is a child-based initiative and children are in our schools nearly every day. Districts are utilizing our tax dollars to make food purchases to feed these children, so I believe we as a society have a moral and ethical obligation to make sure the calories we feed these children are healthy, nutritious calories,” she stated. “At-risk and low-income children that are in our care, who sometimes do not get meals at home, are even more vulnerable to poor nutrition. They deserve the right to be fed real food whenever they eat at school.”

On Saturday, May 3, 2014, genHkids hosts their main fundraiser “Savor” at Long Bridge Golf Course. For more information on how to participate, go to www.genHkids.org or contact Jen Dillman at jen@genHkids.org or call 217-691-0592.
The genHkids Coalition concentrates on nutrition in schools simply because more kids are reached there than elsewhere and children are the focus of the organization. But there’s more going on in this kitchen than just cooking. Plenty of studies show our students sit too much and aren’t allowed or expected to move around. “Eat Real/Move More” is the official slogan and mantra of genHkids. Along with the concept of healthy meals, the group works to bring helpful ideas into the classroom, encouraging more physical activity. Kids act up less when they simply have recess before lunch. As obvious as it may sound, the kids run off energy, get an appetite for healthy foods and then behave better in the lunchroom. Other programs such as Brain Breaks (getting out of the desk chair and moving around several times a day helps the kids be active and concentrate on school work) and Jump Start! (12 minutes of vigorous exercise first thing in the morning) are included in the “Move More” side of the genHkids concept.

From the “Eat Real” list comes Destination Dinner Table, a program that helps families relearn lost skills such as shopping for fresh food and cooking kid-friendly meals in about 20 minutes. Part of the success comes from the clever and witty names of the programs offered. The school meal program like the one used in Ball-Chatham is officially titled “C4” (Chefs Creating Cafeteria Classrooms). “My Choice Challenge” brings a “schoolwide health education fair” into school to teach precepts of a healthy lifestyle. The Coalition is also implementing food growing programs with “Healthy Seeds” and “Grow Your Own Grub” Clubs offered in the schools to get kids digging in the dirt and raising crops on school ground. “Seeds of Possibility,” a community garden on Springfield’s East Side where local union workers are contributing time to aid in tilling the ground, installing irrigation and building raised beds, allows for genHkids and community members to create and tend private garden plots. All this is done without cost to the schools or the participants. Donations from businesses and individuals and volunteer workers make it happen.

Volunteers gather to work at the Seeds of Possibility community vegetable and herb garden. George Sinclair is the garden coordinator/educator.

Supporting businesses and organizations range from Lincoln Land Community College and St. John’s Hospital to the Central Illinois Boys and Girls Club to the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and many, many more. Along with the generous donations and support already given, genHkids hosts a couple of fun fundraisers annually. In the fall, there’s the Mad Mud Dash with food, games, live music and plenty of mud to play in for a donation. On Saturday, May 3, the group sponsors its second annual “Savor” at the Longbridge Golf Course with live music, a “CHOPPED” style chef’s competition and plenty of donations from folks like you who need to support an organization of this caliber and importance.

Here are some important and staggering statistics as stated in genHkids promotional material. Our current younger generation is on track to be the first generation in modern history to have a life expectancy less than their parents. Obesity in Americans has tripled in the last 30 years and will soon replace tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Malnutrition and inactivity likely have more to do with low test scores and learning disabilities in schools than inadequate teaching skills or inferior academic materials. Obesity and overweight issues continue to add to our burdened health care system and even affect our military, as more than 30 percent of potential recruits are turned down because of unhealthy weight status. As Dr. Sarraf sees it, the bigger problem of a country killing itself through poor eating habits and lowered physical movements can best be helped, and hopefully cured, by local individuals working together.

“We need to understand we can solve national problems best on a local level. We as citizens here need to figure out what works for our community and from that develop a toolkit for other places to use and build their own system for problem-solving,” she stated. “How do you began to build healthier people and encourage change toward a life of nourishment? We can do it by teaching, by working together, by caring and by educating and empowering. A whole generation of children is at risk. I don’t want this to be my organization. I want this to be our organization. That’s where the power comes from to accomplish our goals, as a community working as one caring group.”

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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