Schools Gain New Tools to Fight Obesity

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Teens at Southern High School in Durham have opted to have salads and vegetables available more often in their cafeteria instead of French fries and pizza. Since January, they’ve started a fitness club, where they go running and work out with their teachers. And they’ve lowered the price of healthy snacks and drinks at concession stands, so they can make wise-and economic- choices, like water instead of sweetened sodas.

Students gained the tools to move to healthier choices thanks to a new program now operating in 36 schools in Durham County and eight schools in Orange County. The Healthy Schools Program encourages students to get involved in promoting physical activity and nutritious eating, while it fosters health education and employee wellness. It’s an outreach effort of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to reduce childhood obesity. In 2005, the alliance got started with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has committed $28 million to the program. The foundation’s funding supports the alliance’s work with 100 schools in North Carolina.

Childhood obesity is an epidemic across the nation, but particularly in North Carolina. About a third of children ages 10-17 are overweight or obese statewide, compared with a national average of 31.6 percent, according to a 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. Yet, if lifestyle change is to catch on, school seems the place to do it, where the young are open to doing things differently.

Mario Daye, a 12th grader at Southern High, said he was surprised to discover in a survey conducted last fall that 84 percent of students wanted to eat pizza and fries once or twice a week and have healthier food more often in their cafeteria.

“I was surprised because a lot of kids, they had pizza and fries ever since they came Southern, so it was something they’re used to,” he said.

Although the school still has pizza and fries on the menu, it’s working on providing the healthier foods requested in the survey. (Above, Daye enjoys an apple, donated by the Food Bank of NC, which provides fruits each week for students at Southern High.)

“We serve salads in a little container, and we have fruits available to students in the lunchroom,” Daye said.

The survey was among the tools provided by the alliance to help move schools in the right direction. The students were also asked what kind of activities they would like to participate in outside of what’s offered. Their answers brought forth the fitness club and a zumba class. Students also used an online “product navigator” that allowed them to browse a range of healthy snack and beverage options available from companies with which the alliance has agreements. Those choices allowed the students to put healthier, lower-priced options, such granola and fruit snacks and fruit pops, in concession stands.

How It Works: Grassroots Student-led Initiatives

Daye is on a student school health advisory committee whose members are from schools participating in the Healthy Schools Program. They work to develop a plan for getting students and staff on the healthy bandwagon using the alliance’s best practices. The students also receive guidance from medical professionals from the community’s Obesity and Chronic Illness Committee and support from the Durham County Health Department.

Shauvon Simmons-Wright, the alliance’s N.C. relationship manager, who helps support students’ efforts, said she first made contact with school districts to find out which schools had a need for resources based on the socio-economic status of students. She says the changes made at Southern High School are now spreading to other schools, in classes from kindergarten through grade 12, in Durham County. Orange County schools are also looking into the healthy snack options and survey.

Simmons-Wright says any school or individual can sign on to the Healthy Schools Program online at http://www.HealthierGeneration.org and receive access to its resources free of charge.

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