Wellness Goes to School: Shasta County’s Healthy Students Initiative

November 15, 2010

By Margaret T. Simpson

In Redding’s Lassen View Elementary cafeteria, children line up for a free breakfast of whole grain pancakes and fruit smoothies. At recess they can jog on the new playground walking path, and at lunch the salad bar is heaped with lettuce and other produce they’ve grown in their school garden.

It’s cool to eat in the Eagle Café at rural Bella Vista Elementary. The dull cafeteria is gone, transformed into a magic forest with a wall mural of swirling leaves and shady trees. Outside, the new covered patio is favored by the 7th graders who crave a more adult ambiance. A new, high-efficiency dishwasher has already reduced utility costs by almost $1,000 per month.

Cypress Elementary’s first kitchen is finally up and running. Until a month ago, pre-cooked meals were delivered and then reheated in a small food service area. Now there’s room to cook “from scratch” with more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables. Pizza sauce made with puréed vegetables is one of the new menu items.

Change is everywhere in these Redding-area schools.

It’s part of the Healthy Students Initiative, a 7-year pilot program of the Healthy Shasta collaborative to lower child obesity rates through good nutrition and physical activity. Salad bars, school gardens, magic murals and pizza sauce are part of the long-range effort to reduce chronic health conditions that afflict many of Shasta County’s adult population. If it works, Healthy Students Initiative can expand the program to other schools.

“To address childhood obesity, we have to go where the students are,” said April Jurisich, coordinator of the initiative. “Many students, especially low-income students, may get their main nutrition from school meal programs.”

The lack of adequate daily nutrition is a concern for Jurisich. In her initial surveys to test the children’s 24-hour recall of diet and behavior, she learned that 14 percent of 2nd – 4th graders had not eaten dinner the night before, and a surprising number of children had consumed high-caffeine sodas, cappuccinos and energy drinks during this period.

By marketing healthy food as fun and updating cafeterias and kitchens, HSI has almost doubled the number of children eating a school breakfast.

The school gardens are another part of the HSI strategy to link nutrition and physical activity. They’re also a good way to get children to eat vegetables.

“They love getting out there planting and harvesting,” Jurisich said. “They eat the produce. They love it when they go to the salad bar, and they know the lettuce that day was from their garden.”

The HSI launched its first in-school project in August, 2008 with funding from partners The McConnell Foundation, Shasta Family YMCA and Shasta County Public Health. The goal is to form good eating habits and behaviors early in children’s lives. Healthier school food and physical activity are the first steps in a long-range plan that includes parent and staff empowerment and sustainability policies.

But in Shasta County, wellness wasn’t always organized or welcomed.

When Terri Fields Hosler, deputy director of Shasta County Public Health, first envisioned the collaborative that became Healthy Shasta, many residents refused to believe their county had an obesity crisis.

“There was this perception that childhood obesity happens in the big cities where children can’t get out and run around,” she said. “We have all this beautiful space; we shouldn’t have a childhood obesity problem.”

Childhood obesity did exist in Shasta County, said Hosler, and it didn’t matter how much open space was available if it wasn’t safe for children.

“Our schools are in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “The only way to get there is for children to ride a bus for an hour or for parents to drive them. There are very few schools where it’s safe for children to walk to them.”

Prior surveys showed increased rates of overweight in both adults and children from 1999 to 2007. Testing of students during HSI’s first year found that over 33 percent of students were overweight (16.5%) or obese (17%).

More than half of the county’s 180,000 residents live in rural or unincorporated areas, and many are isolated from medical and social services they need to improve their health. In the 2005-2007 U.S. Census estimate, almost 26 percent of children under 6 years old lived below the poverty level.

The three HSI elementary schools are low-income; in one of the schools, almost 85 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

“Right now we’re the second-worst county in California for the age-adjusted death rate,” said Hosler. “Our citizens in Shasta County are living a much shorter life given the beautiful place they live in.”

The question was: what to do about it? Hosler was all too familiar with the cycle of local health programs that dissolved when the funding stopped. Groups often competed against each other for the same grant funds, she said.

“We didn’t have this kind of collective vision about childhood obesity, what we were doing well and what we needed to focus on to address the gaps,” she said.

The answer was Healthy Shasta, an initiative of health experts and local leaders — people Hosler calls “key decision makers” — willing to incorporate healthy lifestyle changes into their own policies and working environments. By offering options like free health club memberships, on-campus bicycles and healthy food vending machines to their employees, students and customers, Healthy Shasta partners (funders and non-funders) could promote positive lifestyles for residents of all ages.

Health living wasn’t only for the public health department’s clients; it was integrated into the community structure and reinforced as more partners joined.

“They could, through organizational changes and practices, touch thousands of residents on a daily basis,” said Hosler.

But change takes time and energy, and some residents have conflicting views about school policies. “The changes are positive in our eyes, but a lot of people think differently,” Jurisich said.

Sometimes it’s a matter of altering a mindset, forming new habits about nutrition or just learning how to participate in school health councils. Parents in general are very supportive of physical activity, she said, but some are hesitant to abandon time-honored rituals like cupcakes and pastries at class parties and events.

“We picked schools that had the capacity and were ready to change,” said Jurisich. “We didn’t want to have to convince people of the importance of a healthy school environment.”

Empowerment is one of the long-range goals of the program. Over the next five years, Jurisich and her staff will teach families, staff and students how to advocate for healthy school food and wellness policies.

“Parents who want to see healthy changes need to feel they have the right to ask for it,” said Jurisich. “All schools are required to have a wellness policy, and that’s a great place to start to make your school become healthier.”

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