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Fight to be Fit: Experts, schools work to educate both kids, parents

Zoe Elder (left), 5, and Caileen Szostak, 6, each choose a fruit from the healthy food 
bar at Tyler Elementary School in DeKalb, Ill., Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
Zoe Elder (left), 5, and Caileen Szostak, 6, each choose a fruit from the healthy food bar at Tyler Elementary School in DeKalb, Ill., Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
Strawberry PancakesVeggie SandwichesRoasted Chicken

Lisa Cumings was spurred to action by a boy in an elementary school cafeteria.

Cumings, the community health liaison for Kishwaukee Hospital, was at DeKalb’s Tyler Elementary School in 2011 to teach a class about healthy foods as part of the hospital’s Coordinated Approach To Children’s Health program.

“He came up to me after class and he pulled on my shoulder, and he said, ‘Miss Lisa, my mom doesn’t buy those types of foods. I don’t have those at home,’ ” Cumings said.

That boy’s story, she said, is too important to not share.

“It’s not just his story,” Cumings said. “It’s a story that probably reflects many children in the county. ... That’s the thing that stirred me.”

Now Cumings and a variety of community organizations have come together to help curb childhood obesity and its causes.

Theirs is a way of thinking shared by many who work on a grander scale to try to better the health of American children: de-emphasize weight loss and instead focus on the daily decisions that affect a child’s overall fitness. Replace the fried stuff with veggies. Skip the soda. Limit time spent in front of the TV. When possible, walk.

That effort is needed: A May 2010report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity found that nearly one in three children ages 2 to 19 is overweight or obese. Doctors take several factors into consideration – including weight, age, height and gender – to determine whether a child fits one of those categories.

The task force’s action plan is to reduce the childhood obesity rate to 5 percent by 2030, the same rate before it began to rise in the late 1970s. It attempts to do so in a variety of ways, including changing the familiar food group pyramid to the MyPlate icon, intended to remind people to eat healthy.

In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a first sign of potential progress, a study that showed from 2008 to 2011 nationwide there was a decrease in the obesity rate for preschool-aged children from low-income families. Nineteen states/territories showed decreases, while 20 others – including Illinois – experienced no significant change. The rates rose in three states.

Beverly Henry, an associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Northern Illinois University, called that report encouraging and significant, but said awareness of making healthy choices needs to continue.

“It’s not time to stop,” she said.

An evolving approach

Although Henry is optimistic about the effect awareness campaigns have had on establishing childhood obesity as a national topic, she’s not yet willing to say the right measures have been taken to point the graph downward.

In DeKalb County, efforts have ramped up only in the past two or three years, but they’ve gained significant momentum as community groups have begun to unite in the fight.

The CATCH program, for instance, has seeped into many aspects of the environment for local youth. Schools in DeKalb, Genoa and Sycamore have forged partnerships with NIU that have been shaped and nurtured by KishHealth System, the Kishwaukee Family YMCA and the DeKalb County Health Department.

“Many places that have had success [with declining childhood obesity rates] have made broad, sweeping changes to make healthy foods available in schools and communities and integrate physical activity into peoples’ daily lives,” DeKalb County Public Health Administrator Jane Lux said.

That’s what CATCH is attempting to do in DeKalb County.

Starting two years ago, students in kindergarten through fifth grade in all DeKalb School District 428 elementary schools are annually exposed to CATCH programming six times. Students in Sycamore District 427 receive similar after-school lessons, and a pilot program at Genoa-Kingston Middle School has brought the initiative to a slightly older crowd.

CATCH programs are taught by kiniesiology, health and physical education, public health and dietetic student-teachers from NIU, and focus on encouraging healthier food choices and physical activity.

“We are the manpower,” said Nancy Prange, the director of NIU’s dietetic internship program. “... We emphasize that no food or activity is off limits, just that there are some healthier choices and some that we make less often because they are less healthy for us.”

As part of the CATCH curriculum being taught, students as young as 5 learn to categorize foods and activies into three groups: Go, for healthy choices; slow, for less encouraged choices; and whoa for choices that just aren’t healthy.

It’s a lingo that has reached students in the cafeteria, at home and elsewhere.

“More so I see it in the cafeteria, when students will get my attention and say, ‘Miss Meyer, I ate my ‘go’ food’ and I’ll say, ‘Rock on,’ “ Jefferson Elementary Principal Cristy Meyer said.

The CATCH program received a $13,000 grant to put fresh fruit and vegetable bars into every elementary school cafeteria in DeKalb.

The DeKalb Community Gardens and the YMCA also have taken up CATCH’s cause. The gardens provide healthy fruits and vegetables for free to parents and families in District 428 though the district’s own food pantry, the Barb Food Mart.

The YMCA has taken on summer school, after-school and weekend programs that instill CATCH’s principals to children as young as 4.

“When they get to school, they’re going to start with a base, and it’s not going to be foreign to them,” said Lesley Feyerherm, Kishwaukee Family YMCA’s youth development coordinator.

Just as the program hoped, what’s learned isn’t left behind when children go home.

“We had a third-grade parent that said, ‘You guys got me in trouble,’ “ Feyerherm said. “She had served something for dinner that night that wasn’t in the go or slow category and her kids called her out on it.’”

A cultural shift

The groups that have teamed up to help DeKalb County’s youth believe success – changing attitudes of both kids and their parents – is possible only with help on every front.

“It really takes a village,” Prange said. “We have every piece coming together, so we can hopefully have that paradigm shift.”

Little steps help: Local schools often unplug vending machines during the day, and when they are on, they dispense healthier fare. Meyer said holiday parties at her school no longer consist of candy and other sweet treats.

“No one is saying that there should never be another M&M to cross anybody’s lips, but it’s just that there are choices,” said Nancy LaCursia, the DeKalb Health Department’s school coordinator.

In the long term, Henry predicts, significant changes won’t come like a crashing wave – more like the slow turning of the cultural tide. It’ll take a shift back toward simply promoting healthy growth and development.

“Which is what the message used to be before this trend,” she said.

• Shaw Media reporter Shawn Shinneman contributed to this report.

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