Danville, a small farming community in Illinois, is trying to change the county’s obesity rate, which for adults currently rests at about 32 percent. This is similar to the national average, with approximately two-thirds of American adults being overweight.
But Danville has a secret weapon.
Northeast Elementary Magnet School is a public school that focuses on healthy living. This school has kindergarteners hip hop dancing to the alphabet, fifth graders whose math tasks include calculating calories, and there is gym class everyday. Everyone, including teachers, wears a pedometer to help reach a goal they set for themselves at the beginning of the year.
Food is not used as a reward, cupcakes are not allowed for birthdays and there is nothing processed in the cafeteria. Milk is full fat, and parents have to sign a contract committing to the school’s healthy approach. There is a no sweets policy throughout the school. And instead of rebelling, the kids are becoming health advocates and point to junk food as the enemy.
You would think a school like this has healthy skinny kids, but kids are kids everywhere. There are chubby kids and way-to0-thin kids and gangly kids and just plain kids. The difference is that the kids all understand that they have choices and what those choices mean in relation to their health. And like all kids everywhere, it is hard to get kids of all sizes moving in the same way. But in Danville, they ARE moving, and there is not a lot of whining. In fact, they tell you that school is fun.
The program has only been in place for three years, so long terms benefits are hard to determine or measure yet, but the community is involved as are the families of the students. Many have benefitted from the new curriculum. One mother has lost over 100 lbs since the school adopted the healthy program. Her family has switched from eating lots of convenience foods to lean grass-fed beef and lots of fruits and vegetables based on what her children learn in school. They come home and teach it to her.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has awarded Northeast Elementary a gold medal for their efforts. The Alliance established a Healthy Schools’ program in 2006, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It helps schools that want to become healthier and meet alliance criteria for winning medals.
The Alliance was founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to reduce childhood obesity, and has only awarded two other gold medals: one to a high school district in New Jersey, the second to Northeast Elementary, and the last to Rio Hondo Elementary in Los Angeles. Any school participating in the Healthy Schools Program is eligible to earn a bronze, silver, gold or platinum National Recognition Award based on their range of healthy eating and physical activity programs and policies. More than 500 schools have received either the bronze or silver award, so the gold is quite something.
Former President Bill Clinton says the steps Northeast has taken are an exemplary way to tackle “a terrible public health problem. We will never change it by telling people how bad it is. We’ve got to show people how good it can be,” Clinton said, paraphrasing a colleague at the Alliance’s June awards ceremony in Little Rock, Ark.
Photo credit: karimian