Webinar focuses on importance of nutrition and physical activity to improve the health and learning of Kentucky’s children

Photo: Kentucky Coalition for Healthy Children

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

The third of five webinars about reducing disease and unhealthy behaviors in Kentucky’s children focused on policies and programs to improve nutrition and physical activity.

The Nov. 9 webinar, “Promoting Healthy Lifestyles Through Nutrition & Physical Activity,” came in a monthly series that is serving as the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky’s annual policy forum, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to come back to the realization that student health improves student learning and outcomes,” Bonnie Hackbarth, the foundation’s vice-president for external affairs, told Kentucky Health News. “If we really want to improve scores in our state, health is a key part of improving those scores.”

Amanda Goldman, health-care industry strategist, Gordon Food Service, talked in the webinar about the importance of nutrition to growth and learning.

“We know that a good, balanced diet ensures essential vitamin and mineral support to support healthy growth,” she said. “We also know that healthy eating, in addition to regular physical activity, helps children and young adults to decrease their risk of such chronic diseases as Type II diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, as well as certain types of cancers.”  She also noted that school nutrition programs, like the national school-breakfast program that serves over 80% of U.S. schools, has not only improved students’ nutrition, but their learning, attendance and test scores.

Goldman added that throughout the pandemic, school districts across Kentucky have worked to find ways to make sure their students get nutritional meals even if they are learning from home.

The foundation is partnering with Kentucky Youth Advocates on this year’s Howard L. Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum. The next webinar, “Understanding Youth and Building Good Mental Health,” will be held at 2 p.m. ET Monday, Dec. 14.

Jamie Sparks, school health program manager for ETR, a national nonprofit working to advance health equity, pointed out that while health and wellness is a priority in some Kentucky schools, it is not  in every school. “Why do all students not have the same accessibility and the same amount of time allocated around these issues?” he asked.

He pointed to a national shift toward a “whole child” approach when it comes to education and stressed that “nutrition and physical education and physical activity are all critical components” that need to be included.

Further, he said many of the changes that have resulted from the pandemic, like taking away the focus on standardized testing, has created an opportunity to move toward this “whole school, whole community, whole child” approach.

Sparks also spoke to the challenges schools face to improve achievement gaps, which often comes at the expense of physical education and physical activity time within the school day.

Added to that, Kentucky only requires a half-credit of physical education to graduate high school, though school districts can require more.

So, as Kentucky works toward increasing physical activity in the school day, Sparks said mandating daily PE time is not the solution, largely because schools don’t have enough PE teachers or building space. Instead, he said schools must find ways to incorporate movement throughout the day and ways to partner with communities to increase movement.

Sparks is also the executive director for SHAPE America in Kentucky and the former coordinated school health director for the Kentucky Department of Education.

An example of how schools and communities can work together to improve nutrition and activity, especially in children, can be found in the Healthy Hometown Project in Clinton County, said Paula Little, assistant superintendent of Clinton County Schools.

The project, which is made up of about 30 community partners, is part of a six-year grant-funded by the foundation that addresses both nutrition and physical activity in the community.

Clinton County (Wikipedia map)

Little said that in 2012, 74% of adults in Clinton County were overweight; only 17.1% of school-aged children ate the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables; and only 21% of kids were active on a daily basis. Further, the county’s rates of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other chronic diseases related to obesity were significantly higher than the rest of the state. “Clearly, we were a county that needed to do some work,” she said.

She said the Healthy Hometown Project, created in 2013, has worked to change the culture of the community with a “strong, consistent, good health message everywhere” and to make “the healthy choice the easy choice.” She added that the focus has been on changing children’s nutrition and physical activity behaviors, which is thought to be more doable than changing those behaviors in adults.

“We wanted our children everywhere they looked in the community to be able to say, ‘Oh, that’s a good healthy choice. That’s easy. Let’s do that’,” she said. “And that needed to come not only from the school, but the community, the media, the church, everybody we could get, we tried to get involved.”

Some of their efforts include providing healthy meals to students during the summer in a mobile café, offering after-school supper programs, offering free fruits and vegetables in the elementary schools, providing a grab-n-go breakfast carts in the schools, creating student walking clubs, offering classroom activity programs as well as increasing PE time, and they built a community playground. “The focus is on being healthy, moving and eating better,” she said.

And the results are paying off, she said. Since starting the program, Clinton County moved up 30 notches in health outcomes in the latest county health rankings issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, from 94 to 64.

Little closed her presentation with her favorite quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“If our community can do it, so can others,” she said.

Nellie Ellis, a freshman at Centre College and graduate of Whitley County High School, spoke about the importance of positive messaging when it comes to talking to students about nutrition and activity.

“So, when we’re talking about food, we should do it in a neutral way, instead of using terms like good, bad, clean, nice, etc.,” she said. “Talk about what bodies do or how they feel, rather than what they look like. Encourage exercise for the sake of health and enjoyment, not for weight control.”

Click here to register for the Dec. 14 webinar. The panelists will be Felicia S. Smith, licensed psychologist, co-owner of StrongMinds; Dr. Allen Brenzel, medical director, state Department for Behavioral Health; Kerry Gallagher, director of K-12 Education, ConnectSafely; and youth speaker Beatrice Roussell of Louisville Manual High School’s STAMINA suicide prevention group. The moderator will be Sheila Schuster, executive director of Advocacy Action Network. The webinars are free, but registration is required for “attending” each one.

The foundation is also seeking members for the Kentucky Coalition for Healthy Children, which will work to identify and promote policies to improve children’s health in school settings. Go to kentuckyhealthychildren.org to learn more about this coalition.

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