Moving kids from fat to fit
The Springfield campaign to promote healthy food and exercise
This school year, in a little patch of yard beside a set of mobile classrooms at Southern View Elementary School, students and their teachers are hoping to find a few new flavors. As a way to teach students about health and wellness, the District 186 school is building a garden in a sunny spot that last spring surprised passers-by with a few bright red wild strawberries.
“It’s fertile,” Southern View principal Jonnell Baskett says about the patch of grass that is to become the school’s vegetable garden, which is meant to broaden students’ food horizons. If students can take ownership of the garden, they’ll be more inclined to try the fresh fruits and vegetables they grow, educators hope. And once they try the healthy foods – which some students are not exposed to in convenience-driven homes – students will ask their parents to purchase them instead of sweet and salty treats with little to no nutritious value.
“We had somebody who came and talked to us about a garden a couple of years ago,” Baskett says. Even then, she thought it was a great idea, until reality struck – among other roadblocks, the school doesn’t own a tiller, needed for breaking ground. The proposed garden was canceled.
This year, however, the garden will grow – or, at least, Southern View will plant it in hopes that seeds will sprout. “All I have is the black thumb of death,” Baskett says, explaining that Southern View is relying on the genH Coalition to bring a tiller and to help make the garden successful.
The genH Coalition (“Generation Healthy”) formed about three years ago in response to the nation’s growing childhood obesity rate that advocates say will eventually threaten everything from the economy to national defense. The coalition is run on the energy of Dr. Kemia Sarraf, about two dozen dedicated volunteers and the work of its anchor partners – St. John’s Hospital, Lincoln Land Community College, Sangamon County Medical Society Alliance, District 186 and the Illinois Department of Public Health, to name just a few.
As an umbrella organization, genH facilitates networking and cooperation among organizations independently committed to health and wellness and works to educate schools, families and the general public about the benefits of proper nutrition and physical activity. With one paid staff member – executive director Brandy Moore Grove, whose $20,000 salary is paid for by a gift from the St. John’s Foundation – genH’s initiatives, from health fairs to cooking demonstrations, are made possible through grants and donations of time and money from individuals and businesses.
“What I have seen since I moved here, and continue to see, is that Illinois is ranked number four in the country with regards to the percentage of our children who are either overweight or obese – number four,” says Sarraf, genH founder and president, the mother of four and a board-certified internist. She and her husband, Jeffrey Goldstein, an interventional cardiologist at St. John’s Prairie Heart Institute, moved to Springfield about eight years ago. Before moving to Springfield, Sarraf worked at Barnes Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine, in internal medicine, and earlier in her career worked on obesity and diabetes issues in Salt Lake City with the Indian Health Service.
“The statistics show it is very unlikely that a child who is overweight or obese will overcome their weight problems as an adult,” Sarraf says. With obesity comes greater risk for an onslaught of other health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
“If the trends continue as they are today, kids being born now are going to live a shorter lifespan than their parents. It would be the first time that would happen in U.S. history,” says Tom Schafer, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s office of health promotion.
Though the current statistics paint a grim picture, Schafer says Springfield is one community poised to change its course.
“I think Springfield fits in with the rest of the state as far as there’s a problem and we’re all aware of it. I think what makes Springfield unique is a group like genH and the school district,” Schafer says. “The thing that makes us so optimistic about Springfield is the willingness of this group of people who have the time and the passion to put forward a program that will ultimately help kids today and the rest of their lives.”
Continuing with their own initiatives in concert with genH, organizations including St. John’s Hospital, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and Lincoln Land Community College serve as anchor partners with District 186 and other Sangamon County schools in the common goal of encouraging childhood wellness.
Kimberly Luz serves as St. John’s Hospital’s education outreach coordinator and as genH’s education action team leader. In one of its latest efforts to fight childhood obesity, the hospital has developed an interactive map of Route 66 at www.kidsncontrol.org that anyone can use to log physical activity. Luz says the hope is that teachers will use it to teach about locations along the route while logging an entire classroom’s efforts to stay active.
The program is the result of an $86,900 grant from Kohl’s Department Store, which St. John’s chose to dedicate toward childhood wellness efforts after the revelation several years ago that 26 percent of Springfield kindergartners were overweight or obese. That percentage only increased as students progressed through school, with 35 percent of fifth graders and 38 percent of high school students overweight or obese.
“It shows kids getting bigger and bigger and bigger as they go on to the next grade level. So that’s pretty interesting data,” Luz says, noting that those numbers are several years old. The hospital is now working with a vendor to update those statistics, which should be available later this fall.
Sarraf says schools – which feed many children two meals a day and have kids’ attention for most of their waking hours – can help combat the trend St. John’s numbers show, though they shouldn’t be expected to do it alone. Sarraf says that genH operates on the assumption that all schools are already overworked and underfunded.
“I agree with those teachers who look at me when I talk to them about increasing physical activity for kids and improving nutrition and say, ‘That’s great, Doc, but that’s your job. My job is to teach them.’ And I agree with them,” Sarraf says. “What I have worked very hard and diligently to do, through continuing education for teachers, is to teach them that the data show unequivocally that children who are well-nourished every single day during the school day, who are physically active multiple times every day during the school day, perform better academically.”
“We have never created a program and then handed it to the schools and asked them to do it,” Sarraf says, commending dozens of volunteers who’ve signed on to the genH cause. “We are asking for access, that’s it.”
It’s an approach educators say has been ideal.
“GenH has a lot of wind behind its sails, because it’s a coalition that when they say they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it,” says Rick Sanders, District 186 physical education coordinator. Sanders oversees several wellness programs made possible by a $150,000 CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) grant from the Illinois Department of Public Health, including a series of wellness fairs organized by genH and St. John’s Hospital.
When genH was just getting off the ground, St. John’s had already been working to develop kiosks about healthy living, so it was only natural that St. John’s and genH partner to bring wellness fairs to area schools, Luz says. After holding all-day wellness fairs for students at participating schools last year, the organizations also put on family health fairs where Lincoln Land Community College chefs demonstrated healthy cooking to parents and St. John’s offered hundreds of dollars worth of free health screening. The fairs allow kids to see everything from martial arts instruction to real hearts and smokers’ lungs.
“They don’t say, ‘Well, we want this, but you have to do all the work.’ With this health fair, which was a component of the grant to have the health fairs, it would have been very challenging for 24 individual schools, or this office, to pull off what genH has done with all their stations,” Sanders says.
Sarraf says she works first to gain buy-in on the individual school level, and has done so by giving 90-minute presentations at least once to every District 186 elementary school as continuing education for teachers.
After sitting through one of Sarraf’s presentations just prior to last school year, Hazel Dell staff members immediately chose to ban chocolate milk – which is high in sugar – from its cafeterias, says Leila Hosseinali, a second grade teacher at the school. During the presentation, Sarraf showed an image of several sugar cubes representing the amount of sugar in one chocolate milk.
“Seeing it like that was kind of surprising for us,” Hosseinali says, noting that many students were getting a double dose of chocolate milk when they ate both breakfast and lunch at the school. “It just started a conversation right then and there – what steps can we do as a staff and a school to make some small changes to help out our kids?”
Besides removing chocolate milk, Hazel Dell implemented “brain breaks” – two- or three-minute breaks from coursework taken by an entire class at the same time for a quick physical activity such as jumping jacks or yoga breathing.
“We have so many expectations that we have to get done in one school day … that you don’t really stop to think that they really need to be doing more than getting up and walking down the hallway to get a drink,” Hosseinali says.
Hazel Dell also moved recess from after lunch to before lunch, which Sarraf says should reduce food waste. Because children are active before eating, their bodies are hungry for more food – nutritious food.
Hosseinali says the change proved beneficial for classroom management. Instead of taking 10 minutes out of what could be instruction time to calm down students after recess, sitting through lunch does the trick. Any arguments that had developed during recess were resolved through the lunch period, before students returned to class.
Then-Hazel Dell principal Mike Grossen, who this year is the new principal at Springfield High School, says discipline referrals after lunch last year declined by about 30 percent, with an overall decline of about 14 percent. Students also complained less about stomachaches, he says.
Grossen isn’t quite ready to attribute standardized testing gains to the wellness changes, but he notes, “It didn’t hurt us.” He says that about three other principals in the district have contacted him about the logistics of switching to recess before lunch.
Independent from other genH-partnered studies, SIU’s Springfield Collaborative for Active Child Health, over the course of five years, is using $350,000 in grant funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield to encourage childhood wellness. One of the programs introduces students aged three to five in Springfield Urban League Head Start programs to exercises meant to help them develop motor skills through moderate to vigorous physical activity, such as hopping, skipping and jumping. A second program is part of the CATCH program and uses SIU medical students to provide district teachers with information and ideas about incorporating wellness into all aspects of school.
Melissa Jones, project coordinator for the collaborative, says focusing on younger children will help them make educated choices as they grow older and are able to choose their activities and food. “A lot of the times these kids will be malnourished then their BMIs will skyrocket because they’re introduced to vending machines,” Jones says. “BMI” stands for body mass index, a measurement of fat.
As part of SIU’s work, the school is surveying the students it works with so it can measure how effective its efforts are, something it’s also doing as part of a partnership with genH, which is implementing a new program, “JumpStart,” at Matheny-Withrow Elementary School this year.
The JumpStart program asks teachers to spend the first 12 minutes of every school day leading students through moderate to vigorous physical exercises. Looking at behavior, academic progress and absenteeism, the study will compare any progress seen at Matheny to Pleasant Hill Elementary, which will serve as a control school and won’t implement JumpStart.
Another genH, SIU and St. John’s Hospital program, “Destination Dinner Table,” is slated for a study as well. The program will feature Lincoln Land Community College executive chef Charles Campbell, who will give four presentations at each of a handful of District 186 schools to teach families how to cook balanced meals from scratch. As adults learn to make inexpensive, easy-to-prepare, nutritious meals, children will learn etiquette and how to set the table.
Campbell says the program will start by assessing the skill level and time constraints of each family. Then, Campbell will teach parents how to make simple meals and use their children to help out. “So it becomes a family project to get dinner on the table,” Campbell says. When families leave, they’ll take home recipes and supplies donated by County Market.
Sarraf says any data gleaned from the study could help genH and other organizations compete for grants to support future programs.
While the district is making considerable progress in the wellness arena, Sarraf’s ideals for physical education and food service have yet to be reached.
Physical education courses are not a daily activity for Springfield elementary students, despite a state requirement. Having obtained a waiver from the state, the district only provides two half-hour physical education classes to students each week. That waiver expires in two years, and Sanders says that, in order to meet the requirement for kindergarten through high school, the district would need between 25 and 30 more physical education teachers to add to the approximately 40 already employed.
District 186 Superintendent Walter Milton says expanding physical education courses is a great idea, but he adds that the district must also consider “the fiscal reality of our state and our country.”
Sarraf says funding physical education is a matter of priorities and that it’s genH’s role to educate the public and those in the district who set those priorities on the documented academic benefits of physical activity. “It’s a leap of faith … but when you live in the fourth heaviest state in the country, regarding your children, we have to begin doing something different.” She says the studies genH and its partners are conducting with programs like JumpStart should make that leap a little easier.
The district has already changed much of its cafeteria offerings to healthy versions of old standards (corn dogs are still a staple, but breaded with whole wheat) and introduced raw produce on a daily basis as an alternative to canned fruits and vegetables, says Jan Miller, District 186 food services director. Comparing this month’s lunch menu to a menu from about 10 years ago, pizza is relatively rare. And while the old menu offers zero opportunity to eat a real salad, it’s a Wednesday standard for at least the first four weeks of this school year.
Sarraf, as well as the LLCC chefs working with genH, would like to see more from-scratch cooking, but she acknowledges that schools no longer have the resources they did when, 30 or more years ago, school cooks made everything from raw ingredients.
“From-scratch cooking is labor intensive. … So while it is absolutely possible to deliver a lunch to the children made from scratch at school for what is budgeted per child, it’s difficult to do that without hiring additional staff to help, and that’s where we end up with the problems,” Sarraf says, adding that school lunches – regulated and paid for through complex laws and bureaucratic systems – is the “hardest piece” of the wellness puzzle.
Even if the resources were available right now, Miller says that sudden changes aren’t necessarily going to be successful. “I know everyone wants to change everything right away, but I’ve been in this long enough to know that you can’t. It’s a slow process. We’ve been trying to put the fresh fruits and vegetables out, and I have seen … more and more kids taking more produce, it’s just taking time.”
She says she’s seen the most success in getting students to eat healthier foods in the youngest grades. “You get the little kids coming in – they have nothing to compare it to.”
In the meantime, Sarraf says Springfield and the nation must focus on changing the current culture of food, both in schools and in homes. “We need a paradigm shift in this country with regards to the way we approach food. We need to again begin to view food as fuel, as nutrition, rather than as entertainment. … We get really, really hung up on the idea that my kid’s breakfast needs to make his eyes pop open and rainbows to shoot out of his head and butterflies to sing. … We need to move away from that and towards the idea that food is designed to nourish the body.”
Contact Rachel Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org.