For some, summer camp brings to mind canoeing on a mountain lake, hiking and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over an open fire.
Today for many children in cities such as Los Angeles, summer camp provides a different experience, as kids fill school classrooms and playgrounds during the months when school’s out. Activities typically include arts and crafts, field trips, games and for some urban campers, learning about healthy eating choices.
As part of a wide-ranging strategic effort to combat childhood obesity, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has partnered with Koreatown Youth & Community Center (KYCC), LA’s Best, and other organizations, to get children excited about nutritious food and physical activity. Healthy Habits summer program is offered by Cedars-Sinai at six locations in underserved areas of Los Angeles.
“We’re delighted to have Cedars-Sinai’s Healthy Habits program as part of the summer camp curriculum,” said Janet Lee, curriculum developer and KYCC staff member. “It’s important to have nutrition as part of our summer program due to the magnitude of the obesity problem.”
Obesity prevention is the goal. Throughout the school year, the Healthy Habits program is taught by health educators to second-, third- and fourth-graders in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The approach is similar to learning a foreign language; the earlier you start, the better.
This summer at KYCC’s summer camp at Los Angeles’ Wilshire Park Elementary, two health educators from Cedars-Sinai, Janeth Bravo and Bethy Woubeshet are team teaching a series of six weekly sessions for children in grades first through fifth.
“First-graders, their minds are like sponges, soaking up all the information about healthy eating,” said Bravo. “Kids love the nutritious snacks we make, and the physical activity games. But what’s most important is we’re teaching them to think about the food they’re eating. What’s healthy? What’s not? It’s amazing how quickly they learn.”
On a recent afternoon at KYCC Woubeshet started a session by asking the class of 17 first graders, “What did we talk about last week?” The students shout in unison, “Food!” Next she asks, “What did we make?” Students recall a healthy snack of apple slices with a yogurt, honey and cinnamon dip. Several share their experiences recreating the treat at home.
The lesson on this day is about red, green and yellow light foods, focusing on food choices that are unhealthy (red light), healthy (green light), and those okay in small amounts (yellow). A class discussion, with colorful pictures of food examples, is followed by a lively fitness game of Red Light/Green Light outside to drive the lesson home.
“Which is a green light food,” Woubeshet asks the class, “white bread or whole grain wheat bread?” In chorus, the children answer, “Whole grain wheat bread!”
“Now, who can give me an example of a red light food?”
The first graders’ responses include: Sugary gummy worms, ice cream and cupcakes.
Taking the approach to the next level, Bravo explains how one food, such as milk, could fall into all three categories, with whole milk, two percent and one percent low fat versions; and chicken depending on the preparation. She shows a picture of a chicken drumstick and a student can’t resist shouting out the name of a popular fast food chain, demonstrating seven-year-olds can instantly make the leap to practical associations in their daily lives.
Outside on the playground, what they have learned is put to the test. Students stand in a horizontal line approximately 30 feet from the teacher. She holds up a picture of a food, and says the name of the food. Students must quickly discern if this is a green, red or yellow light food. Similar to Mother May I, they can take three hops for a green light food, two hops for a yellow food, and must not move for a red light food. Bravo cautions, “If you get caught moving when we show a red light food, you must go back to the beginning.”
The game is afoot.
Grilled chicken breast!
The children laugh and all take three hops forward.
A few kids are sent back to the start.
An easy one. Everyone proceeds with three hops.
Surprisingly, no one moves a muscle.
Back inside the classroom, it’s time to help make a healthy snack: a yogurt parfait with blueberries, fat-free vanilla yogurt, topped with a whole grain cereal. One student holds up his parfait and asks, “Who wants a cheer?” All those sitting nearby exuberantly clink plastic cups with him and laugh before devouring their treats.
Bravo asks them to suggest other fruits they might use to make this snack at home. Enthusiastic answers include: banana, guava, orange, apples, grapes and dragon fruit!
With that, an hour has flown by, and it’s time for the health educators to move on to the next classroom. Next week, the first graders will discover how much sugar is in some popular snacks and beverages, and they’ll learn how to make a healthy, fruity and fizzy pineapple pop, as an alternative to a sugary soda.
“And one of the best things, we’ve discovered, is that most of the kids talk to their parents about what they’ve learned each week, and what healthy snack they’ve made, taking the message home,” said Bravo. “The whole family benefits.”
The Koreatown Youth & Community Center is a nonprofit, community-based organization that has been serving the Korean American Community since 1975. KYCC’s programs and services are specifically directed towards recently-immigrated, economically-disadvantaged youth and their families.
For more than a century, Cedars-Sinai, the largest nonprofit medical center in the Western United States, has been committed to meeting the health needs of the wider community as part of its core mission. The Healthy Habits program is one of hundreds of community service programs provided at local public schools, homeless shelters, and community centers.
Carolyn Buenaflor is the Program Administrator, Healthy Habits for Kids at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.