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Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010 02:56 pm

Tackling childhood obesity

$100K grant helps local groups study health issue

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Shakiya Miller (right) and Jamya Fallen (left) enjoy playtime while learning healthy habits at Springfield Urban League’s Head Start program.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

The cheesy drum track lays down a bouncy rhythm as the usually-reserved doctors and nurses dance awkwardly, mime snacking, hug themselves and shake their bodies. Believe it or not, they’re learning how to combat childhood obesity.

“When I eat my veggies, my heart says ‘Thank you!’ ” sings Dr. Linda Carson, leading the group in a song that teaches kids healthy snack and exercise habits.

It’s part of a training session at SIU’s Department of Family and Community Medicine in Springfield, where a recently-awarded $100,000 grant from Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Illinois is helping local organizations promote healthy habits in children.

“Children have a very small sphere of influence – parents, teachers, health care providers and maybe their church – so it’s important that we as health care providers reinforce healthy preferences at a young age and get others on board,” Carson explains.

Carson is an expert in child development at West Virginia University and lead trainer for an obesity prevention initiative by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Head Start. Visiting Springfield this week to train health care providers and teachers, she is leading the charge for the Springfield Collaboration, a coalition of local groups like the Springfield Urban League and Springfield School District #186.

In a classroom at the Urban League’s Head Start program, several 3- to 5-year-old children dance to similar music played earlier at SIU. The children pretend to chop spinach and pick cherries while they sing about making healthy choices.

“It’s important to reach them young,” says teacher Rita Glover. “What they learn now will stick with them into later years.”

The groups in the Springfield Collaboration will work through October to measure the physical activity of local 3- to 5-year olds and collect information about what they eat. That information will be analyzed for clues about health issues faced by children who are overweight. The problem has become commonplace in America, with one in seven children – 14.6 percent – in low-income families classified as overweight or obese in 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s probably the biggest impending health problem we have,” says Dr. David Steward, professor and chair of internal medicine at SIU School of Medicine. “This is the first time in many decades where there’s probably a generation of people going to enter adulthood unhealthy, and it’s because of childhood obesity. It’s increasingly a national agenda item to decrease childhood obesity and prevent it if we can.”

Steward says the survey will also help identify health care disparities for low-income groups.

“Obesity in general is related to socio-economic status, so the lower socio-economic status you are, the higher risk you are for obesity,” he explains. “Exactly how that plays out individually and in neighborhoods here, I don’t know, but that’s the general idea. People speculate a lot about healthy food and its availability in neighborhoods that are underserved, and we’re not directly going after those things, but we know those are likely to be issues.”

Carson places the blame for childhood obesity squarely on the shoulders of one group: adults.

“Children don’t go to the grocery store and buy food,” Carson says. “They eat what their parents buy. They are active if their parents or teachers are active. They emulate adults, and our behaviors rub off on them.”
Just as Carson blames adults for childhood obesity, she says it is up to adults to fix the problem.

“As adults, we have to make better choices for our children,” she says. “Their futures really are in our hands.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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