Perspectives Online, The Magazine of The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Summer 2009 Issue

Moving Toward Health - Extension educators help kids, parents improve eating and exercise habits. By Art Latham

Fifth-graders at Greenwood Elementary display their nutrition projects.
Photo by Art Latham

Truth be told: we got lazy, and we gained weight.

That’s why obesity is a serious health concern in North Carolina, which holds the dubious distinction of the fifth highest childhood obesity rate in the United States. That’s according to statistics from Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina, which promotes healthy eating and physical activity statewide.

In 2006, about 63 percent of our state’s adults also were overweight or obese. That concerns ESMM, because both conditions can increase the risk for health problems, including chronic diseases.

It also concerns N.C. Cooperative Extension workers such as Bill Stone, Extension 4-H youth development agent in Lee County.

Stone and Cooperative Extension partners kicked off an ESMM NC program last fall that runs through this summer and has public school students running with it. And kicking, and dancing, and gardening and just generally moving around more — not to mention eating more healthily.

Greenwood Elementary's fifth-graders show off their tumbling skills.
Photo by Art Latham
“We think we’re making a positive impact on our students’ eating habits and increasing their physical activity level through this three-tiered program,” says Stone. “Kids can learn how not to be fat, how to be healthy through eating properly and exercising, and how to grow their own healthy produce while spending more time as a family in the community garden.”

Partnering with Stone to make those points to more than 800 Lee County kids and their parents are the county health department and public schools. The program is funded through grants of $12,705 from ESMM NC and $4,421 from the Ernest and Ruby McSwain Charitable Foundation Inc.

Here’s how it works.

The first part, “Fit for Life,” began last September in Lee County’s seven public elementary schools.

First, school nurses contacted 10 parents from each fifth-grade classroom to set up monitoring to help measure the program’s impact on their families.

“By including parents, we hope to further reinforce the value of healthy eating and physical fitness for the entire family,” Stone says. “With parental and teacher support, the chances of students continuing to practice what they have learned in the program greatly increases.”

In the classrooms, Extension agents used a variety of techniques to get the program’s point across to the students. For instance, Stephanie Romelczyk, Lee County horticulture agent, and Carrie Enyart, agriculture agent, used a large felt “pizza” to show students the origins of their foods. Kids selected “toppings,” and the agents explained that each item came from a plant or animal.

Susan Condlin, Lee County’s Cooperative Extension director, then discussed the USDA Food Guide Pyramid while using plastic food models to emphasize the importance of eating a variety of foods. She also introduced the “Strive for Five Journal,” in which students tracked five weeks worth of their daily fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity.

Stone would then stress the importance of at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily, which students could achieve through traditional sports or by dancing, walking to class or helping with household chores and yard work. He led them through exercises, then passed out bottled water and told them to drink plenty of water before, during and after exercising.

The Extension instructors then introduced the “Movin’ and Groovin’ Challenge,” for which students had seven weeks to create a three-minute, five-movement musical routine.

In seven weeks, Stone and crew returned to the schools, collected the journals and handed out “Fit for Life” certificates to students who completed the program.

The classes then performed their “Movin’ and Groovin’ ” routines in front of the rest of the fifth-grade classes and three judges lined up by the lead teacher.

The class selected for the best overall routine and the class selected for the best overall participation and progress on their journals stayed for the “celebration” part of the program, during which Condlin taught about a variety of vegetables that were Lee County-grown. Students sampled carrots, broccoli, squash, cucumbers, peas and more.

At Tramway Elementary, students plant their salad gardens, with input from Bill Stone, 4-H youth development agent in Lee County.
Photo by Art Latham
Enyart and Romelczyk taught the students a line dance, and the kids sampled fruit cups of apples, pineapples, oranges, pears, raisins and grapes.

Recently, the winners from Greenwood Elementary, Sunny Collins’ fifth-graders, strutted their stuff again for visitors and a lively routine it was, with students performing cartwheels and flips, building human pyramids, dancing and much more, all set to lively music.

The program’s second segment — “Growing Healthy Kids” — started this spring.

In activities closely aligned with the Lee County Schools’ science curriculum, students learned how to grow, care for and harvest their produce and prepare a meal from it.

In January, Romelczyk coordinated Lee County Master Gardener Volunteers (MGVs) to teach students to prepare their container gardens for planting and gave tips on garden watering, fertilizing and maintenance. Later that month, Tramway Elementary and other public school students, working with the MGVs, started containerized “salad gardens” in three window box planters for lettuce, radishes, carrots and spinach and a large five-gallon planter for broccoli transplants. The students then watched and cared for the seeds as they grew into vegetables over the next several months.

At Tramway, MGV Peggy Hudson checked in for an hour once a week with Cindy Quiggle’s fifth-grade science students. Hudson’s lessons had included information about growing seasons, staggering planting dates due plant maturation dates, and using container gardens to provide gardening continuity over late winter and early spring months.

On a recent sunny early spring day, students visited the school’s interior atrium gardens to follow up on their work.

Hudson guided them to observe the growth already made by carrots and other small veggies they planted earlier in their container gardens and taught them to plant other seeds, cover them with soil and water them.

The volunteers also taught students how to prepare produce from their gardens, and after harvest, students made a salad with their own fresh vegetables.

Excited by their successful vegetable growing experience, the kids were ready for the program’s final component, stepping out of the classrooms into the fields of summer. They visited the 4-H Community Garden at the Lee County Extension Center, where the plots were substantially larger than the containers they had been using.

In addition, 10 families selected by an application process attend monthly gardening workshops taught by Romelczyk, other Extension staff and local MGVs like Avron Upchurch to learn successful gardening skills.

“The project is a community garden, but in reality it will be so much more,” Upchurch says. “Hopefully, it will instill a passion for horticulture in our young gardeners and their families and provide us the opportunity to teach invaluable skills the participants will use for a lifetime.”

Adds Stone, “The shared vision among the many partner organizations in this project is a North Carolina where healthy eating and active living are the norm rather than the exception.”