Saturday, January 14, 2012

Quarterly Feature: "Last Year's Big Steps Forward in Healthy Lifestyles... More Steps Needed!"

By: Dana Minney, Austin Council of PTA Healthy Lifestyles Chair

“Your body has two settings: 1-burn fat, and 2-store fat. If you eat a healthy breakfast, your body will be on the ‘burn fat’ setting all day and your body and mind will be in high performance. If you eat an unhealthy breakfast or no breakfast, your body will be on the ‘store fat’ setting all day and your body and mind will be in poor performance...all day.” 

These words from Mario Mendias, owner/founder of My Fit Foods as he highlighted the benefits of nutrition and healthy life choices when he spoke at a recent PTA meeting at Casey Elementary.

Surprisingly, what many of us feed our kids for breakfast puts them on the ‘store fat’ and ‘poor performance’ setting for the whole day. A majority of kids’ breakfast cereals have at least as much if not more sugar content than junk food desserts (ie. a hostess twinkie)! But it is not only what happens at home that is important to support healthy kids. What goes on at school and in the community affects children’s health as well.

For the past 10 years, the Austin Independent School District, in collaboration with the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), has been leading the way to support healthier school environments. CATCH is the K-8 coordinated school health program used in AISD. It is a holistic approach to children’s health and AISD has received several million dollars in grant funding from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation for implementation of CATCH at both the elementary and middle school levels. To learn more about the CATCH program in AISD, and to volunteer to help with their Family and Community Involvement component, check the ‘Article Links’ below and click on the tab that interests you.

Local schools have been busy supporting children’s health and nutrition as well. A lunchline reorganization or "makeover" piloted at Bryker Woods Elementary increased the amount of healthy foods students ate, and started a domino effect where other schools are now duplicating the program. Grant money from St. David’s Foundation supported the Lunch Line Makeover efforts.

Wendi Caudill and Steven Burke with AISD, spearheaded the program. It involved changes in the cafeteria lunch line like moving chocolate milk behind white milk so kids are more apt to grab the white milk (with lower sugar content).

Another effective change that resulted from the Lunch Line Make-over at Bryker Woods was putting vegetable side dishes at the beginning of the lunch line so kids would not run out of room on their tray by the time they got to the end of the line where the vegetables normally are placed.

"It made a real difference," Burke said. The district estimates students now consume 15 percent more fruit and 10 percent more fresh salad and vegetable dippers. Hot vegetable consumption went up about 3 percent on average, according to the district's study. Sales of chocolate milk dropped from 200 to 170 units.

In the community, leaders like Paul Corrozza, owner and founder of RunTex and the RunTex Foundation are also concerned about family and child health. Paul Corrozza believes, “To get kids to become more active, we need to create a culture of feeling good and being active. That culture starts at home and is reinforced in the community.”

As families struggle with ways to help their children, keep in mind that family engagement is one of the most influential factors in whether or not kids are healthy, physically active and successful at school. Studies show kids who grew up in families where they had a family meal together at least once a day and did activities at least once a week were less likely to suffer from obesity, drug addiction and eating disorders.

To emphasize the importance of these findings, Texas Governor Rick Perry dubbed September ‘Family Engagement Month’. And Texas PTA Executive Director, Kyle says, “Students’ self esteem and self worth are contingent upon the interaction within the family unit. It is so simple: Have lunch at school with your child, plan a special family dinner with everyone expected to attend, cook together, come up with a weekend activity that all family members will enjoy.”

Casey Elementary in South Austin took these words to heart and last fall launched a new program that promotes healthy family engagement, creates community and encourages membership in the PTA. It is called the Fittest Family Contest and FUN is the secret ingredient to its membership drive success. It is based on the assumption that when families are playing as a team and have a clear, common goal, they will enjoy a feeling of unity and spirit of connection that may not have been there before.

Since the contest takes place over the duration of the school year, families are more likely to establish new patterns that stick. These behavior changes are cemented with reinforcement in the form of ‘FitBucks’ earned when a family (at least one grownup and one student qualifies as a ‘family’) participates in any of the events planned by the PTA and P.E. Dept.

Some of the events Casey’s fittest families are participating in are a monthly FitFamily boot camp, canoe ride, soccer clinic, bi-lingual yoga workshop, a tour of Sunset Valley’s Farmer’s Market and a healthy cooking demonstration.

FitBucks can be cashed in throughout the year for prizes donated by sponsors. “We love to offer prizes and incentives for being active,” says RunTex Foundation’s Paul Corrozza, one of the sponsors of the contest.

Healthy Lifestyles Chair Dana Minney calls it an ‘All-Win Model’. “Everyone wins just by playing. It’s not a competition and we are not trying to change anybody’s mind about nutrition and exercise, we simply want to keep inviting the families to play, and give them a reason to do that...and it works!”

Casey Elementary’s Fittest Family Contest is a ‘Plug and Play’ model that can be used at any school or organization. Several schools have spoken up about implementing the program next fall and efforts are underway to erect a rock wall at Casey through Fittest Family Fund-raising.

PTA has come a long way and huge leaps forward have been made at schools by parents, and AISD working together to create a positive, healthy environment where kids can feel good, good enough to learn, play and reach their full potential.

We need your help to continue the positive changes!! If you’d like to start a contest similar to Casey’s Fittest Family’s Contest, sponsor a Family Engagement Day at your school or get info about how to make your child’s campus healthier, please email us.

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