Healthy Environments for Kids: Begin at the Beginning
This Spring, my job will involve, among other things: getting very dirty, having a strawberry-tasting party, and quite possibly, playing a game of Farmer’s Market Treasure Hunt. Luckily for me, the best way to engage young children in eating healthy and being active is to make it fun.
I am fortunate to be my county’s coordinator for a terrific statewide project called Shape NC that’s working to make preschools and child care centers in our state healthier. The Chatham County Partnership for Children is one of 27 county partnerships in North Carolina that has been working for the last three years to help centers provide more nutritious food, especially more fresh fruits and vegetables, and keep kids as active as possible during their day. We are especially trying to work with those that serve more lower-income families. And allow me to brag for a moment: we’ve all been so successful that our funder, Blue Cross Blue Shield NC, has chosen to fund project for another three years! Here’s a cool Shape NC Photographic Infographic that sums it all up.
Before I went to work in early childhood obesity prevention I didn’t think that being at a healthy weight was that much of an issue for little ones. After all, the under five set tends to be a pretty active group. Despite the natural inclination of most young kids to wiggle and wriggle a lot, 1 in 8 preschoolers in the U.S is obese. Like most health issues, this problem plagues low-income kids more.
What’s more, there is a newly published study this week that finds that if a child is overweight by the time they’re in kindergarten, there’s a good chance they’ll be obese by eighth grade. The takeaway: when obesity becomes established early in life, it can really take hold. All the more reason that it’s so important to make sure our youngest children are at a healthy weight.
One effective public health approach to obesity prevention is to make positive changes in the places where we spend our time outside the home – our communities, workplaces, and schools. If your young ones spend time in preschool or child care, you know how important their time there can be in shaping their earliest experiences.
I remember how scary it was for me to put my children in someone else’s care for the better part of the day while I went to work. But it turned out to be a wonderful thing for both of them. One of the many things I liked about the family child care home my children attended was that the food was for the most part, very fresh and nutritious. I remember well when India came home raving about a delicious dish she had had at lunch that day that she wanted me to make. It turned out to be a whole wheat pasta salad with broccoli and kidney beans, and it became a staple in our household!
I would have been even more thrilled if the center had a vegetable garden. So I’m really happy that for the second spring in a row, we’ll be helping put in a veggie garden at a local child care center. What three or four (or 42) year old doesn’t love to dig in the dirt! They’re so proud of the veggies they grow, they’ll actually taste them – and oftentimes like them. At the same center we’ll be throwing a tasting party during strawberry season so the little ones can taste the freshest most seasonal produce. We’ll be working on menu changes and sending home a newsletter with healthy recipes for parents. And to get the whole community involved, we’ll be hosting our third “Kids Day” at our local farmer’s market where little ones can play games while their parents can pick up some fresh local fruits and veggies on us (we’re giving out vouchers for free produce).
As both a parent and a public health worker, I hope for a day when children will only be served fresh, healthy food by the institutions we entrust with caring for them and teaching them. I hope that someday, whether they’re four or fourteen, their school day ALWAYS involves some time to get outside and move around.
Parents, teachers and even kids need to ask for it and help make it happen, in any way they can. For our garden projects to work, for example, we need parents to help out from time to time. Lots are working and can’t do it. But one or two parents helping out can make a huge difference.
Have you been happy with the food at your child’s preschool or child care? How about physical activity? What do you think parents should do to help make these places healthier?