It just may take a village to combat childhood obesity.
That's why institutions as diverse as Nemours Children's Hospital, Rollins College, Winter Park Health Foundation, "Sesame Street" and nearly two dozen local child-care centers have joined to tackle the problem in Central Florida.
They believe the best way to address the obesity epidemic is to nip the problem early. So, they start in preschool.
The effort began in 2009 when Nemours, through its Childcare Obesity Prevention Initiative, teamed with "Sesame Street" to develop a program for child-care centers. The goal was to get tots and teachers thinking about eating more fresh foods (and less food from boxes), drinking water instead of juice and sugar-sweetened beverages and moving a lot more.
The program used wellness guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Institute of Medicine, said Jessica Mills, program and policy analyst for Nemours' Florida prevention initiative.
"By the time American kids reach age 5, 20 percent of them are overweight or obese," said Mills, explaining her reasons for targeting kids early. "We're hoping to change those statistics."
Last year the program got a boost from the Winter Park Health Foundation, which gave it a $50,000 grant. The foundation topped that this year with a $90,000 grant.
The funds help get teaching tools into preschools in Winter Park, Eatonville, and Maitland — all of which feed into elementary schools that have a similar, coordinated health and wellness program, said Lynn Carolan, spokeswoman for the health foundation.
"We want to have a continuous impact," Carolan said.
The funding prompted Nemours to look for more ways to partner with the community to enhance the program. That's where Rollins College and anthropology professor Rachel Newcomb came in.
When Newcomb learned about Nemours' initiative, she saw an opportunity.
"Nemours had a great program in place," Newcomb said. "We offered a way to attack the problem from a different angle."
Newcomb and her students are studying the cultural reasons behind obesity, a problem she sees as largely environmental.
She enlisted seven students from her senior seminar course in applied anthropology to go into the preschool classrooms where Nemours' Healthy Habits program was being introduced.
"Bringing in an anthropology perspective enhances the program," said Mills, "because anthropologists take into account where the child works, lives and plays."
Like Mills, Newcomb likes the idea of starting young. "You have to get in on the ground floor and make changes that will have long-term ripple effects," she said.
"At this age, children are developing their taste preferences. If we can make those include foods that are good for them, that's a change that could stick for life, a change they could bring home."
Rollins seniors visited their assigned schools several times to observe how teachers were using the health materials and to see how they were engaging families, Mills said.
They reinforced program activities that encourage youngsters to eat foods the colors of the rainbow and to know the difference between "sometimes" foods and activities (ice cream, playing video games) and "anytime" foods and activities (apples and soccer).
Other wellness guidelines include not using food as a punishment or a reward and not having children sit out at recess as a punishment.
Although the program components should work in theory, Mills said she did not have evidence that proved the effort was in fact curbing childhood obesity. "We don't know yet," she said.
So far, the program has been introduced into 23 child-care centers, reaching more than 600 children. The Rollins students interacted with 140 kids at five of those centers.
Making a difference
Veronica Willis is one of the Rollins anthropology students involved. At the Learning Tree in Winter Park, she observed 3- and 4-year-olds in the classroom and talked with director Sandy Varnell about the school's lunch menu, snacks and activities.
"It made us take a harder look at what we can afford to offer these children while they're in our care," Varnell said.
The two days a week the school provides lunch, the fare is usually fried fish sticks, chicken nuggets or mac and cheese, said Willis.
"The challenge is the budget," she said. "It's hard for them to find budget-friendly foods that are healthy, and that the kids will eat."
One approach is to promote a vegetable of the month and link it to a "Sesame Street" character, such as Elmo enjoying broccoli.
However, success will require more than team Elmo and Big Bird.
"One message from one source won't do it," said Newcomb. "We need continual messaging from many trusted sources, including schools, hospitals, child-care centers, foundations and colleges."
But Willis feels already has made a difference. "I'm just one person at one preschool," she said. "But if everyone pitched in, we could really see some change."
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