Anti-obesity program targets preschoolers, will expand to rural Kentucky next year

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The latest America’s Health Rankings report ranks Kentucky as the 47th healthiest state, a fall from 45th last year. With the exception of one year, Kentucky has found itself ranked as one of the bottom 10 states since the rankings began in 1990.

How does Kentucky even begin to dig itself out of this hole?

The long-term answer will likely be found in changing the health habits of our children, which is exactly what the Kentucky Department for Public Health is trying to do by participating in the National Early Care and Education Learning Collaborative Project, a childhood obesity-intervention program that targets child-care and education providers for preschool children.

Kentucky is one of a few states in the program, and will be expanding next year to locations in southeastern and western Kentucky.

“Sustained well-being is made possible when people learn the lessons of a healthy lifestyle early on,” Health Commissioner Stephanie Mayfield said in a press release. “By working with the early-care and education community, we are able to reach many of Kentucky’s young children and help them build the foundation for being healthy and active.”

Child obesity has been considered a national epidemic, with 17 percent of U.S. children considered obese and almost 32 percent considered overweight. Kentucky ranks eighth in child obesity, with 19.7 percent between the ages of 10 and 17 obese, according to the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual “The State of Obesity” report.

The same report says nearly 16 percent of low-income children under the age of 5 in Kentucky who are enrolled in federally funded maternal and child health programs are characterized as obese. That is the target population for the project.

The project, which is part of a multi-state pilot funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and managed by Nemours Children’s Health System, aims to fight back against this epidemic by placing a focus on improving nutrition, increasing physical activity, reducing screen time, and providing breast-feeding support through a national curriculum and learning collaborative method with early care and education providers, according to a Nemours press release.

Kentucky received a $275,000 grant from Nemours to be a part of this project. Currently, nine states participate in the National ECELC Project.

The first phase of the Kentucky Early Care and Education Learning Collaborative includes 65 early care environments in Jefferson County, Fayette County and Northern Kentucky. The programs represent Head Start classrooms, non-profit and commercial child care, private preschool and public preschool settings and has reached 7,559 children.

Phase II of the project allows funding to launch four more collaboratives in 2015. The first two will launch in March: a second one in Jefferson County, and one in Laurel County, which will include an invitation to the early-care programs in the surrounding counties to participate. The second launch will happen in October, but these locations, which will be located west of Interstate 65, have not yet been determined.

Child-care centers in the program “participate in group learning and action planning and have access to technical assistance, tools, materials and resources to aid in their continuous improvement. Information is shared within and between teams,” the state press release said.

The project is not designed to measure child outcomes, which would add tremendous cost in both time and money to this project, Rebekah Duchette, Kentucky’s project coordinator, said in an e-mail. But they are seeing positive results from the program.

“We are seeing changes in environments, policies and practices around nutrition, physical activity, screen time, breastfeeding, family engagement and juice consumption,” she said.

One of the missions of the project is to implement and influence policy around childhood obesity. Kentucky has taken this charge to heart both at the program level as well as the state level.

“We are working on some exciting policy changes and equally exciting clarifications for programs. At the program level we see programs implementing policies that go above what the state of Kentucky requires in child-care regulations: centers that are incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, changing to seasonal menus that expose children to a larger variety of foods, eliminating pre-fried and fried foods from menus, adding more physical activity to the daily schedules and using physical activity time as learning time,” Duchette said.

“As part of our sustainability planning we are working with early education stakeholders to develop a proposed list of child care regulations that support the best practices in healthy behaviors. Additionally, we are working with various branches of the state that regulate child care to clarify some existing regulations and send a consistent message to early care programs about how to implement best practices and stay in compliance with all state and local regulations.”

“Reaching kids early is the key to combating childhood obesity,” Debbie I. Chang, vice president of policy and prevention at Nemours, said in the press release.

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