MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Health has a superhero, and his West Virginia creators hope the furry green critter called Choosy will someday become as recognizable as Smokey Bear, helping prevent childhood obesity as Smokey Bear helps prevent forest fires.
Years in the making, Choosy is now on posters in Head Start offices around the country. He’s got music CDs, including one released last month in Spanish.
Choosy Kids has trained people across the U.S. and in Europe, Korea and Japan. It’s got established relationships with dentists in West Virginia and Maryland, and with Head Start in Springfield, Ill., and the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
At three pediatric clinics in South Carolina’s Greenville Hospital Systems, children see him on a DVD that’s constantly looping on the waiting room TV. They see him again in the paper on the exam table. Then a doctor asks, “Have you been a Choosy kid?”
“It’s like dosing in medicine: It’s double- and triple-dosing the message,” said Linda Carson, a retired West Virginia University professor who now runs the Morgantown-based health consulting company Choosy Kids LLC.
Choosy is the acronym for a message to parents, teachers and everyone else who works with young children: Choose Healthy Options Often & Start Young. But to the preschoolers he’s aimed at, Choosy is a colorful and potentially powerful character.
Fifteen years ago, about 54 percent of West Virginians were considered obese, Carson said. Today, that rate is 68 percent. Diabetes rates have more than doubled, too, from 5.8 percent to 12 percent, while hypertension is also on the rise.
Choosy Kids wants to reverse those trends by focusing on the youngest, most malleable Americans, those who have yet to form bad habits and whose circle of influence is generally limited to family, teachers and health care providers. The thinking is that if children learn to make good choices early on, they’ll lead healthier lives, maintain healthier weights and perhaps even get their parents to focus on exercise and nutrition.
Kerry McKenzie, obesity prevention project coordinator at the South Carolina hospitals, is even working with babies 6 to 12 months old. She helped bring Choosy to more than 1,000 children in Greenville County’s Head Start facilities, collecting data on its effectiveness. In the first year, the signs from 15 Head Start centers were clear: Body mass indices for children in Greenville County either dropped or remained unchanged, McKenzie said, while the BMIs of children in two adjacent counties rose.
Children get bigger as they grow, McKenzie said, but the problem is they’re growing rounder, not just taller.
She’s now in phase two of her study, which has children wearing accelerometers to gather more data. Eventually, she hopes to get Choosy into faith-based programs and South Carolina elementary schools.
Online: Choosy Kids: http://www.choosykids.com/CK2/