California Boarding School for Obese Teens

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A new boarding school in California's San Joaquin Valley for obese teenagers is getting interesting results. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED reports.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

In this country, almost one kid in six is overweight or fully obese; that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In California's rural San Joaquin Valley, the nation's first boarding school just for obese teens is now celebrating its first year of operation. Students come from all over the country. Sasha Khokha of member station KQED has this report.

SASHA KHOKHA reporting:

It's just after 7 AM in the tiny farming town of Reedley, California. Usually these roads carry tractors and vans filled with farm workers, but today two dozen kids are running one mile past a field of apricot trees.

(Soundbite of people running)

Unidentified Man #1: Five forty-six!

KHOKHA: When 16-year-old Terry Henry of Houston first got here last fall, he weighed 591 pounds. He couldn't even walk the mile.

Unidentified Man #2: Terry! Bring it home!

(Soundbite of cheering)

KHOKHA: Today, he's running, and finishes a mile at 13 minutes and 20 seconds. He's beaming at the finish line.

TERRY HENRY (Teen): Every time I see how much weight I've lost, they're like, `How'd you do it?' I just say, `Diet and exercise, the hard way.'

Mr. RYAN CRAIG (Director, Academy of the Sierras School): There's a clear scientific consensus as to what's required for successful long-term weight loss and weight control.

KHOKHA: Academy of the Sierras School director Ryan Craig.

Mr. CRAIG: And that's completely different from all of the ads you're seeing on TV. You know, weight loss requires lifestyle change.

KHOKHA: And that lifestyle change doesn't come cheap. Each student pays over $5,000 a month to attend the Academy of the Sierras, where kids are far removed from the home environments that contributed to their weight gain. Social worker Molly Carmel meets with students twice a week for therapy sessions. She says many weight-loss programs don't work because they don't get at the emotional issues behind the eating.

Ms. MOLLY CARMEL (Social Worker): Obesity has silenced these kids in our society saying, you know, it should be easy; you shouldn't have to exercise; you get to eat whatever you want. And I think that they just come in with these little battered souls.

Ms. JAMI GOEBEL(ph) (Student): Can I have one box of Corn Flakes and one of Cheerios, please?

KHOKHA: Standing in a breakfast line, 18-year-old Jami Goebel of Ohio calculates her calories.

Ms. GOEBEL: What's 80 plus 80? One sixty...

Unidentified Woman: One sixty...

Ms. GOEBEL: Minus 10.

Unidentified Woman: One fifty.

Ms. GOEBEL: So that's 150.

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, plus the milk...

KHOKHA: Students here write down everything they eat on a low-fat diet, and they also note how they're feeling when they eat it. Jami shares her journal.

Ms. GOEBEL: Let's see, in the morning I had a gutted bagel. So I took my bagel, and after I toasted it, I took out the insides 'cause it cuts the calories in half. And I had ketchup on that 'cause if you toast the bagel really well and you put salsa on it and you dip it in ketchup, it tastes like fries. We come up with, like, a lot of weird things here.

Unidentified Woman #2: So looking at this map, why do you think that the Europeans and that the United States would want to build a canal to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans?

KHOKHA: Low self-esteem related to weight affected academic performance for many of these students. Eighteen-year-old Johnny Dallow(ph) from San Diego says he was failing almost every class at home.

Mr. JOHNNY DALLOW (Student): I wasn't happy with myself. So a lot of that was reflected in other ways. Like, I just didn't care; like, you know, I don't like the skin I'm in. So, like, my attitude was kind of, like, blowing stuff off.

KHOKHA: Now he's surrounded by other kids who struggle with their weight, and he's earned a B average. He and other students are learning tools to take home in their nutrition and cooking classes.

(Soundbite of kitchen activity)

KHOKHA: In the school's culinary lab, students learn to make fettuccine Alfredo with low-fat milk and cottage cheese instead of cream. Cooking is Terry's favorite class. He's created more than 150 low-fat recipes and will leave the school with a recipe book to use at home.

HENRY: Before, I used to look at things like, `Hey, I won't be able to do that. I mean, who am I kidding?' And now it's, like, `Hey, let's try it. I want to see if I can actually do it.'

KHOKHA: Most students at the Academy of the Sierras this year have shown dramatic weight loss. But Dr. William Dietz, an obesity expert at the Centers for Disease Control, says when you change a teen's environment, it's easy to see rapid improvements. He wants to see what happens after these teens graduate.

Dr. WILLIAM DIETZ (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): The challenge here is: How do we assure that children or adolescents who lose a lot of weight in one environment continue to sustain those weight losses when they return home to the environment which generated their obesity to begin with?

KHOKHA: The school says it wants to ensure parents fully understand the regimen students are expected to continue at home. At graduation, parents have to attend an intensive three-day session themselves, wearing pedometers and monitoring their own food intake. For NPR News, I'm Sasha Khokha.

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