Teaching Children Healthy Lifestyles that Last a Lifetime

Special to Informer | 7/12/2012, 2 p.m.

By 2030 when today's newborns will become adults, 42 percent of Americans will be classified as obese compared to 36 percent today.

So finds a new study from Duke University's prestigious Global Health Institute. Such alarming statistics have had the positive impact of inspiring healthy lifestyle campaigns, such as the 'Let's Move' initiative pioneered by first lady Michelle Obama. But as Duke University's grim prognosis indicates, there's much to do.

Although the health of our young people has to be prioritized, the toll of obesity actually impacts everyone. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] study found that obesity-related medical bills cost the nation $147 billion annually - which equates to $677 per adult each year. Children are especially vulnerable to the epidemic, as obese parents provide the biggest risk factor for children's later obesity as adults, according to Stanford University's School of Medicine.

While the life expectancy of obese adults is shorter, they are also at greater risk for weight-related diseases such as Type II diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

It is our responsibility as adults to ensure today's children make the right choices - choices that will serve them throughout their lives. I can't change our nation's unhealthy lifestyles on my own, but I believe in the philosophy of changing things for the better, one child at a time.

In my work I have tried to do this at the school I founded, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Northeast, where we serve locally sourced, nutritious meals cooked on site from scratch. The meals include ingredients grown in our organic garden, which our students plant and harvest.

Our school, which is located in the Brookland neighborhood, recently started a Wellness Program. We offer after-school fitness programs for parents and children, and three healthy meals a day to students, 74 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. We partner with Whole Foods, which donates and contributes fresh fish, and fruits and vegetables, and nutritious recipes to help families prepare healthy options.

In this effort, we have learned how to get children more interested in staying healthy. Faculty and staff eat with students and the faculty also explains to students how their food is prepared. It helps that our healthy meals taste good, thanks to our in-house chef. We have found this effort to be more productive and less costly than the processed alternative. After overhauling our food service program - reducing sodium and fat content while serving fresh, nutritious, locally-grown foods - we want to help other schools develop the capacity to do so.

The District's city-run public schools - which have complimented our program - are now also beginning to open school gardens, and serve meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture gold level standard. And many other District public charter schools, which educate 41 percent of D.C. students, have moved forward with this type of healthy provision, independent of the city government.

Everyone concerned about the obesity epidemic knows we need to encourage children to adopt healthy habits. Obviously, I am aware that this goal poses certain challenges.