Clark County joins childhood obesity fight

Head Start program already making strides

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Here’s a real-life example of the obesity problem sweeping the country: a 4-year-old Clark County boy entered the Head Start program weighing 104 pounds.

The boy was tall for his age. Still, the young child was severely overweight. His ideal weight, given his height, was 60 pounds, said Deanna Russell, health services supervisor at Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, which operates the Head Start program.

The boy represents the roughly 26 percent of Head Start children who are considered overweight. Just a few years ago, that rate was up to about 33 percent, Russell said.

Recognizing children’s growing waistlines, Head Start shifted its curriculum to include more nutrition education and organized physical activity, Russell said.

Children tend to fruits and veggies in gardens at each of the centers. They eat meals with low levels of salt, fat and sugar. They act out scenes in books rather than sitting and listening to stories. They hopscotch their numbers rather than counting their fingers.

Their efforts paid off. The percentage of overweight children in Head Start has declined. Education among parents and children has improved. And the 4-year-old boy began to grow into his weight, standing 3 inches taller and weighing 4 pounds less after one year in the program, Russell said.

The Head Start success story was one a several presented to the Clark County Commissioners last month during their board of health meeting. At that meeting, the county joined First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (http://letsmove.gov) aimed at reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity.

Locally, numerous organizations have started their own work and will now join the campaign and partner with Clark County Public Health to help build a healthier Clark County. The health department plans to use social media to promote local activities and encourage community involvement, said Kachina Inman, prevention education coordinator for the health department.

“There’s so many people doing great work,” she said. “Just sharing that knowledge is fantastic.”

Another local organization taking an active approach is Project Healthy Lifestyle. Mikeila Nienaber founded the nonprofit (http:www.projecthealthylifestyle.info) and last year won a grant to create a healthy lifestyles handbook.

She recruited about a dozen local teenagers who researched nutrition, exercise and stress reduction techniques and crafted a handbook for their peers and adults. More than 400 handbooks have been distributed throughout the community.

Project Healthy Lifestyle’s work was recognized by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and featured in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution newsletter. The organization’s efforts don’t end there; Nienaber is planning community classes to promote healthy living.

“I really believe it’s a holistic thing, and the more education people have, the more tools they have to make better choices,” Nienaber said.

The Head Start programs won’t change their current curriculum, but Russell does hope to establish new community partnerships through the Let’s Move! campaign. For example, working with school districts and community nutrition programs could lead to grant opportunities to implement more nutrition education in schools, Russell said.

“It’s just imperative for school success and overall wellness to have that basic physical activity and nutrition,” she said. “If they’re not getting the physical activity nor the nutrition, they’re not going to develop their brain to the full potential.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.