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OSU fights childhood obesity by making healthy choices fun

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. obesity in children can lead to many health issues, including high blood pressure, joint problems, high insulin levels and respiratory problems such as sleep apnea. Psychologically, obesity adversely affects children’s self-esteem and may lead them to become victims of bullying.

kidspirit fights childhood obesity by making healthy choices fun

It’s a chilly Tuesday morning, and the kids are making a mess.

Sixth- through eighth-graders at Oregon State University’s KidSpirit day camp are gathered around a flour-dusted table, kneading dough with sticky fingers. The kids treat it like a foreign object at first, comparing their shapeless clumps and tossing them playfully in the air.

“We’re right in the middle of baking bread,” camp director Karen Swanger says. Made from scratch, the bread is one part of a healthy lunch the kids are preparing in the camp’s “Future Iron Chefs” segment.

“Eating healthy is a major goal here,” Swanger says. She faces the campers, their hands covered with dough. “What things have you learned from this camp to keep you healthy?”

“Don’t cut yourself with a knife,” a boy answers.

Swanger laughs. The program, she says, is intended to make healthful cooking an enjoyable, social experience – and a lifelong commitment.

KidSpirit’s “Future Iron Chefs” is one of the many ways OSU is helping to fight childhood obesity in Oregon. OSU was recently awarded $6 million in grants to develop obesity prevention programs in home day cares and rural areas in Oregon and beyond. The university’s “groundbreaking research” was recognized in first lady Michelle Obama’s commencement address at OSU on June 17.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States. When children’s body mass index is higher than that of 85 percent of their peers, they are considered overweight; at or above 95 percent, they are obese. According to Stewart Trost, associate professor at OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, obesity in children can lead to many health issues, including high blood pressure, joint problems, high insulin levels and respiratory problems such as sleep apnea. Psychologically, obesity adversely affects children’s self-esteem and may lead them to become victims of bullying, Trost says. An obese child is five times more likely than a child with a healthy weight to be obese as an adult, he says.

Swanger says fighting obesity all comes down to “making physical activity fun young so people are active their entire lives.”

Swanger says one of KidSpirit’s primary goals is to create “open minds and open mouths.” The kids are instructed to try everything they cook, despite their preferences. On Tuesday, the table is set with a wide array of foods made by the children, including freshly baked bread, German potato salad, strawberry spinach summer salad, tropical fruit salad, grilled fruit salad and lemonade made from 36 freshly squeezed lemons.

Contrary to the stereotype that children hate vegetables, these kids have developed a love for healthy food.

“My mom usually makes homemade food every night,” says Izzy Queisser, 11, of Corvallis. Jamison Harper, 11, of Alsea, and Pippa Justice, 12, of Corvallis, eat only organic foods at home.

Also, unlike most kids, they have an aversion to fast food.

“I don’t like fast food, it makes me carsick,” Jamison says.

“Future Iron Chefs” is one of two food components of the camp. “Chefs in Motion,” which runs in a two-week rotation with “Future Iron Chefs,” incorporates one hour of physical exercise with cooking. KidSpirit also hosts “Girls on the Run,” aimed at building confidence and self-esteem while training girls to run a 5K race.

While Swanger’s program teaches elementary and middle-school students how to make healthy choices, Trost focuses his efforts on preschoolers through his Healthy Home Childcare Project funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Trost believes that kids at child-care homes eat food that is less healthy and engage in less exercise than children in commercial day-care centers, something he wants to see changed.

“Kids who attend a family child-care home don’t get much physical activity,” Trost says. “They spend a lot of their time in sedentary activities.”

Trost is studying 63 child-care homes along the Interstate 5 corridor as part of the project. Half of them have been given a checklist of healthy habits to follow, while the rest are left as controls.

“It’s a study to test how well a program promoting healthy eating and physical activities [works] in family child-care homes,” Trost says.

Trost’s project is part of the Hallie E. Ford Center in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. The center, established in 2008, is also taking childhood obesity efforts into rural areas through the GROW Healthy Kids and Communities program, funded by a $4.8 million grant from the USDA.

Program directors Kathy Gunter and Deborah John are surveying residents in rural communities throughout Oregon and five other Western states in the hopes of learning what environmental elements support or hinder a healthy lifestyle.

Gunter and John say that being able to lead a healthy lifestyle depends heavily on the environment.

They say kids in rural areas face many more challenges than their suburban counterparts when attempting to stay active and eat healthy. Rural areas often don’t have neighborhood playgrounds or bike lanes to encourage exercise. Kids ride the bus to school, which can sometimes take 45 minutes or more, then get dropped off directly in front for a day of sitting in class. When they get home, they spend more time sitting in front of televisions or video games. According to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, kids age 8 to 18 spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen, and only one-third of high school students get the recommended levels of physical activity.

John says it is important to change the environment so rural children get more exercise. She suggests that bus drivers drop students off at the far end of the schoolyard, so kids walk before sitting down to class. John and Gunter also suggest taking televisions out of children’s bedrooms and putting lunch after recess so that students eat more slowly.

Across the street from the Hallie E. Ford Center, OSU’s new Moore Family Center is working to fight obesity by looking at nutrition. It was founded by a $5 million grant from Bob’s Red Mill, an Oregon whole grain foods company, and opened June 6.

“When you talk about obesity, you are talking about food,” director Emily Ho says. “We want to help people make better food choices.”

A nutrition scientist, Ho believes in the importance of eating meals containing fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Diets low in fat and processed foods have many health benefits, she says.

While a 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health study showed Oregon had the third lowest childhood obesity rate in the nation — 24 percent compared to the national average of 31 percent — Ho believes that the silver lining may be thin.

“The reason Oregon has a low childhood obesity rate may be because we have a high food insecurity rate,” she says. According to the USDA, 6.1 percent of Oregon households suffer from very low food security (also known as hunger), compared to the national average of 5.4 percent.

“We have a lot of hungry children,” Ho says.

Ho says she wants to set straight the misconception that healthy food is more expensive.

“Healthy food is not more expensive, it’s just harder to do,” Ho says. “It’s more time-consuming. You have to look for it, and you have to plan ahead.”

Bulk shopping, for instance, is a cheap way to eat healthy, wholesome food, but it takes good meal planning to ensure that all the food is used before it spoils. The key, she says, is trying to figure out how to help families make healthy choices based on their situation.

Ho says that while most people understand the importance of eating healthy, many give up in favor of more convenient, unhealthy options.

“Most people know to eat fruits and vegetables, but only 25 percent of Americans eat enough vegetables,” Ho says. “There’s a gap between knowing what’s good for you and doing what’s good for you.”

Like Swanger, Ho believes that exposure to healthy foods at a young age is the first step.

“If you’re not introduced to (healthy food) early on, if you grew up with fast food, that’s definitely a contributing factor to why it’s hard for people to make good choices,” Ho says.

At KidSpirit, the campers are ready to eat the food they prepared. Reusable plates bedecked with orange polka dots line a large table as the kids finish cleaning up after their cooking.

Finally, each settles down at the table in anticipation. Bowls of salad, lemonade and bread are passed from hand to hand. In order to expand the palates of the kids, the recipes often include unconventional ingredients.

Today’s curiosity is the plantains in the fruit salad. Camper Ryan Terwilliger tastes one tentatively.

“I like the fruit salad and the sauce, but I’m not really sure about the plantains,” he says. “They’re kind of odd.”

This article originally appeared in The Pride, a publication created by participants of the 2012 High School Journalism Institute. The institute is a collaborative effort between The Oregonian, Oregon State University, the (Medford) Mail Tribune, the (McMinville) News-Register, the Corvallis Gazette-Times and the Oregon Newspapers Foundation to promote diversity in newsrooms of the future. Additional support was provided by the Albany Democrat-Herald, Pro Photo Supply, Nikon and Judy Butler.