Preschoolers become focus in fight against childhood obesity

Monday, January 10, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- When Jane Kostelc first started visiting families at home and asking about their eating habits, she wondered if she wasn't overstepping: "I felt like it was really none of my business what they ate for breakfast," she said.

But it wasn't long before families were pulling cans out of their pantries as she showed them techniques to read food labels, or flipped through their newspapers with her to check what items on sale might improve their dietary choices.

Kostelc works on curriculum for the international Parents as Teachers childhood development program. With more than 10 percent of U.S. children ages 2 to 5 overweight -- according to 2002 figures released last month by the American Heart Association -- agencies including hers are taking their fight against obesity to a younger population.

And the players stepping up are potentially influential ones, including Sesame Street, the Head Start program and Nike.

The Sesame Street show has launched Healthy Habits for Life, a multimedia undertaking where the Muppets will focus lessons on the importance of nutrition, physical activity, hygiene, sleep and doctors' visits.

Promoting nutritious food

Susan Royer, vice president of education and research for the New York-based Sesame Workshop, said the not-for-profit company that produces Sesame Street was troubled by the staggering statistics related to childhood obesity. The show, which reports it reaches 7.7 million viewers in an average week, wanted to encourage healthier children.

After bringing together experts on preschool health, Sesame Workshop came up with a plan to promote better habits in children. "What we committed to this year was to turn the dial up on health," Royer said.

New books and videos, including one where the Muppet Grover hosts an exercise show, will encourage children to get active. Season 36 of Sesame Street, which premieres April 4, will feature more segments focused on healthy habits, like one where New York Yankees manager Joe Torre teaches a character how to throw a ball to play catch.

Even Cookie Monster will be singing a new tune. In one new video segment, he raps to children, "Taking only cookies all wrong, 'cause you also gotta eat fruit or veggies or meat -- boiled or stewed, whole or chewed, you'd feel just great if you'd eat some healthy food."

It's not just Sesame Street that's putting exercise and nutrition at the forefront for little ones.

The National Head Start Association, Nike and San Diego State University are beginning a pilot program this year to teach preschoolers in eight cities ways to get active. They've committed to a five-year, $2.6 million effort, Nike officials said.

Eat right and exercise

Alicia Procello, program manager for the sneaker giant's outreach effort to get children active, called NikeGO, said physical education instructors from the SPARK program (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids), based at San Diego State University, will start visiting Head Start centers this year.

Head Start, which began in 1965, is a national school readiness program. With a newly designed "playbook" and Nike-donated equipment, the program will try to prevent sedentary lifestyles before they ever take hold.

The program has dozens of activities aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds, like asking children to place beanbags on their feet and kicking them up to their hands or tracing curved or zigzag paths on butcher paper that children can later try to follow.

St. Louis-based Parents as Teachers focuses on total early childhood development by educating parents through home visits, and over the years it has expanded nutrition education through its program called High 5 Low Fat.

In 1996, the organization and Saint Louis University's School of Public Health received funding from the National Cancer Institute to address diet-related cancer disparities among the black population.

Parent educators -- using recipe cards, calendars showing fruits and vegetables in season and other handouts -- showed families at home how they can reduce fat in their diets and tips for having five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

The program, evaluated and shown to be having success, expanded over the years beyond black families to reach more of the 350,000 families working with Parents as Teachers.

This March, Parents as Teachers will begin selling a new CD-ROM of its High 5 Low Fat program to those who work with children outside of its organization and hope to reach thousands of additional families.

Maria Garcia, 18, of Fort Worth, Texas, took part in High 5 Low Fat at her alternative high school for teenage mothers this fall.

She said information about nutrition and how much to feed her own children was helpful. And she said she'd used fruit salad and broccoli casserole recipes she'd been given. "It helps you to be healthier, to make better choices about what you eat," she said.

While she said she has not struggled with her own weight, she has seen children who are too heavy and had health problems as a result. "I just don't want my own kids to be like that," she said.

On the Net:

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