School-based Programs Help Children Shape Up

by Candi Helseth

Third grader Nolan Cramer wants to be a professional soccer or baseball player when he grows up. When his school, Stayton Elementary in Stayton, Ore., participated in Shape Up Across Oregon last year, Nolan jumped on board with enthusiasm. He was among 82,000 Oregon students who participated in the school-based program, which motivates children to be physically active as they take an imaginary journey across Oregon, tracking their exercise activities as miles on a map.

“I really like to see how much I can do,” he said. “Exercising makes me feel better and I feel stronger since I did my map and miles. My friends did it and we had fun comparing how we were doing.”

Across the nation, schools are working nutrition education and increased physical activity into their curriculums to combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity. Because children spend a significant amount of time in school, school environments are being targeted as one of the effective societal sectors for change.

Schools are among six sites that Eat Smart, Move More South Carolina (ESMMSC) targets in its efforts to reduce the state’s obesity rates. The nonprofit organization received the national Community Champion Award in 2010 for making a difference in childhood-obesity prevention. Nearly one-third of South Carolina middle school students are overweight or obese and approximately one-half of the state’s African American children are overweight or obese, according to ESMMSC Executive Director Amy Splittgerber.

“We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice for South Carolinians,” Splittgerber said. “We have organized this partnership to work at the grassroots level to use education, advocacy, and strategic programming while also focusing on the larger issues of policy, systems and environmental change. Schools are an important link in our strategies.”

In North Dakota, where Department of Health (NDDoH) statistics indicate 25.7 percent of children ages 10-17 are overweight or obese, several schools have adapted school lunch programs to include more whole grains and less fat, sodium and sugar to meet HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) (no longer available online) certification, according to Loris Freier, child nutrition program director at the state’s Department of Public Instruction (NDDPI). Eight rural elementary schools so far have earned monetary awards for meeting HUSSC guidelines and 111 elementary schools are participating in a new program that ensures elementary children are served fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks. In addition, Coordinated School Health (CSH), a collaborative effort between NDDoH and NDDPI, works statewide with schools to strengthen health policies and support environmental change. “CSH is assisting schools in implementing strategies that promote healthy eating, such as access to healthy snacks and beverages, along with providing nutrition and caloric content of foods,” said CSH Director Becky Bailey. “We’re also trying to decrease access to unhealthy options. Several North Dakota schools have pulled the plug on letting kids use soda vending machines during school hours.”

Shaping Up By Exercising

Dora Rowlings, Shape Up

Dora Rowlings, a first grader in Cottage Grove, Ore., enjoys competing in the state’s Shape Up program.

In 2010, 315 Oregon schools and 145 Washington schools voluntarily participated in Shape Up Across Oregon, which is held annually in April. Shape Up, a nonprofit organization that creates and distributes materials schools can easily use, began the Oregon program in 1998 and expanded it in 2007 to include Washington schools.

Shape Up encourages children to move outside of school hours and emphasizes the value of life-long physical activity, said Chuck Larimer, a Stayton Elementary physical education teacher. Students accumulate up to three miles a day for every 30 minutes of physical activity they perform. They log their miles on a map that changes each year to take them on different routes across the state. Children who complete their map receive a certificate signed by the Governor. Random drawings for prizes throughout the month help children stay motivated.

Parents and teachers are welcome to participate too. Michelle Fleming exercised with her daughter, Dora Rowlings, a first grader at Bohemia Elementary in Cottage Grove. “Dora kept encouraging me to go the distance with her even when I wanted to forget it,” Fleming said. “It was good for both of us to do it.”

Jacqueline Duyck, a Bohemia Elementary teacher, said first grade teachers incorporate Shape Up into a hands-on plant and farm unit. Many schools customize physical education, health, science and state geography curriculums to coordinate with Shape Up.

“We provide schools with all the materials so this is something very small schools as well as large schools can easily use,” Program Coordinator Sally Greer said.

A 2010 survey indicated 99 percent of teachers believe participating students better understand the importance of physical activity and 97 percent of teachers believe students are motivated to continue physical activity.

Forming Partnerships For Healthier Children

Gadsden Elementary School Garden

School gardens, such as this one at Gadsden Elementary School, are part of Eat Smart, Move More South Carolina’s campaign to encourage healthy eating.

Fifteen elementary schools in upstate South Carolina have implemented Zest Quest, one of several programs under the umbrella of ESMMSC. Laurie McCall, a mother of two sons, says her boys now request vegetables and read food labels and have even suggested how she might improve the nutritional content in family meals she prepares. McCall credits Zest Quest Coach Chris Disbrow at her sons’ elementary school with her sons’ newfound interest in being healthy.

Disbrow, a certified wellness coach in Pickens County, SC, teaches weekly classes on the seven daily health habits that are part of the Zest Quest curriculum, which was developed at Clemson University. He also works individually with the elementary-age children.

Although this is his first year in the McCalls’ school, Disbrow said, “In schools where we have longer track records, we are seeing weight losses in these children. Getting parents to embrace Zest Quest means we need to work with families too. We do a lot of family-centered things, like we’re offering a class soon where we bring in a chef to teach healthy cooking on a shoestring budget.”

Surveys indicate parents participating in these outreaches made positive eating pattern changes at home. Schools have also made changes, such as serving only healthy foods at class parties, developing school wellness councils, having non-food fundraisers and making aerobic videos for teachers to use during classroom breaks.

A nonprofit statewide entity formed in 2007, ESMMSC brings together nearly 800 partners working through schools, communities, churches, worksites, health care and childcare. (There is an ESMM North Carolina, as well).

“We have a wide variety of partners and we provide support with grants and tool boxes,” Splittgerber said. “Core issues for obesity may differ within communities so now we are also working on establishing community chapters throughout the state that will develop action plans specific to their communities’ needs.”

South Carolina schools are among more than 10,000 schools nationwide participating in the Healthy Schools Program developed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Lynn Hammond, healthy schools director at the SC Department of Education, said schools receive various levels of awards for meeting a wide range of criteria. ESMMSC often partners with other government agencies such as the South Carolina Department of Transportation, with whom it co-sponsored a Walk to School day, and the SC Department of Agriculture with whom it developed a School Gardens Toolkit .

“About one in four South Carolina children live in poverty,” Splittgerber said. “Our challenge is to find ways, within these families’ means, that they can live healthy on limited resources. We can’t change the fact that fresh fruits and veggies are expensive, but we can try to find ways to bring fresh produce to communities, like creating community and school gardens.”

Schools participating in the School Gardens Toolkit involve their students in planting, weeding, harvesting, and eating the fruits and vegetables they raise in their garden. Schools incorporate gardening activities into curriculums such as science education and creative writing. The Ag Department even developed a fruit and veggies activity book for students.

Resolving Childhood Obesity

Nearly one in three American children are overweight or obese. Organizations working to address the issue face a colossal challenge.

“There are so many trigger points, so many factors that are part of the childhood obesity epidemic,” Splittgerber said. “We can’t keep doing the same old thing. It hasn’t worked. We need to examine the societal problems and the accumulative lifestyle choices that contribute to the obesity epidemic. We have to address public policy and changes in the schools, churches and our communities. We need to get buy-in from them and from parents and families.

“Changing our society so that the healthy choice becomes the default choice is not an easy fix.”

For more information on obesity and weight control, see the following Rural Health Information Hub resources:

For a list of organizations that have created successful programs for children’s health and welfare, see:

The Rural Monitor looked at obesity in rural communities in its Spring 2004 issue (no longer available online). At that time, researchers were beginning to note the prevalence of obesity in rural areas. Since then, the trend has continued, and in many states, it has grown even more prevalent.

Back to: Winter 2011 Issue