Obesity: Grassroots Initiatives Matter Dietician Cindy Wolff argues that innovative programs are needed in schools and communities to promote healthy choices and increased activity.
NPR logo Obesity: Grassroots Initiatives Matter

Obesity: Grassroots Initiatives Matter

Ariana gently pulled several carrots out of the earth and placed them in the Room 12 harvest basket. At the start of the school year, she and the other students had resisted their garden chores. But as they saw the plants grow and then tasted the carrots and yams, they were hooked. They had grown proof that fresh vegetables are different and better than their packaged cousins.

The garden is one of many innovative changes to promote healthier food choices and physical activity at Ariana's school, Parkview Elementary in Chico, Calif. Children there participate in "Crunch Lunch" salad bars, Harvest of the Month fruit and vegetable tastings, a pedometer-based walking program to count steps, and a Walk/Bike to School Day every month. Several children and their parents have completed the Lifelong Eating & Activity Patterns program developed by a community organization, OPT for Fit Kids. A growing number of schools nationally are investing in similar programs with the help of the USDA.

The federal dietary guidelines to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables and be active are important. But to succeed in changing our habits, the guidelines must be linked to programs like those at Parkview. Nutrition education and physical activity promotion programs are necessary to build the food choice skills and lifestyle patterns children and adults need in a world where the easiest choices are often not the best.

Cindy Wolff is a registered dietitian and professor at Chico State University professor. She is also the director of OPT (Overweight Prevention and Treatment) for Fit Kids and the Sierra Cascade Nutrition & Activity Consortium.

Like students in low-income schools across the country, many children at Parkview are obese. Research conducted at California State University, Chico showed that 44 percent of low-income fifth to eighth graders in our county are above an appropriate weight for their height. This is significantly higher than the national rate of 30 percent. In addition, 25 percent of the more than 1,300 low-income students examined either have or are at risk for high blood pressure and 13 percent are positive for acanthosis nigricans (darkened skin around the neck), a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

To help children get the recommended 60 minutes of activity a day, the StepFit pedometer walking program was developed by Chico Rotary Club and OPT for Fit Kids. Thousands of students in over 25 schools in northern California are enrolled in StepFit this year. Before the program, these kids were walking an average of less than 10,000 steps per day, well below the nationally recognized goal for children of at least 12,000 steps per day. StepFit kids typically increase their average number of steps by more than 2,000 per day during the four-week program.

Adults, myself included, wonder how to fit the 30 minutes or more of exercise each day recommended by the new Dietary Guidelines into an already frenzied schedule. StepFit encourages parents to wear pedometers and track their daily steps along with their children. As a point of reference, 10,000 steps is roughly equivalent to one hour of brisk walking. The average American walks approximately 5,000 steps per day so the addition of a 30-minute walk or two 15-minute walks will boost their steps to the goal of 10,000. The use of a pedometer is a simple, easy to remember tool that provides a concrete goal for increasing activity.

The new dietary guidelines may be even harder to achieve when it comes to consumption. The recommendation of 2 cups of fruit and 2-1/2 cups of vegetables for a total of nine servings is challenging even for me despite my PhD in Nutrition and 25 years as a Registered Dietitian. My two children, ages 13 and 15, are typical in that they are still struggling to meet the old guideline of at least five fruits and vegetables per day. They are not alone. Fewer than one-in-five children eat at least five fruits and vegetables daily.

Programs like Harvest of the Month at Parkview School recognize the difficulty in meeting the dietary guidelines. The Harvest program provides classroom tastings of different fruits and vegetables, ideas for incorporating related nutrition information into standard subjects such as math and social studies, and "Dear Parent" letters suggesting ways to increase fruits and vegetables in the family diet.

The newly released guidelines are the strongest statement yet for diet and activity, but they ignore a prime culprit in obesity and overweight: soda. The 2005 guidelines represent a first ever departure from straightforward advice to limit sugar intake, particularly the liquid form of sugar marketed as soda. Beyond the empty calories, our research found that as soda intake increases, fruit and vegetable consumption decreases. Specific guidelines are needed to reduce soda consumption.

Restricting advertising of health harming food products to children is also important. As long as soda and junk food advertisements are geared at children, parents will be at a disadvantage in helping to guide their children toward good health.