By Derek Walter
At Fresno’s Susan B. Anthony grade school, located in one of the most impoverished areas of the city, 78 percent of fifth graders don’t meet the state’s requirements for healthy fitness. Fresno pastor Mike Slayden decided to tackle the problem by encouraging students to walk or bike to school. Through his not-for-profit, he offers them a shiny prize for their work: a brand new bike.
Health statistics from the Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in Fresno highlight the scope of the childhood obesity in California. Fresno’s obesity numbers reflect a national trend—childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The obesity problem, however, is especially difficult in areas such as Fresno. The city has the highest concentration of poverty in the nation, according to the Brookings Institute. The children’s advocacy group Children Now gives the Fresno area a D+ grade on its most recent report card of child health. One of the factors in this poor rating: more than 35 percent of children in Fresno County are overweight, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Before forming Off The Front, Slayden led church members volunteering at Susan B. Anthony in activities like fixing bicycles. He saw first-hand that students struggled with weight and their performance in school. They also exercised less than their more affluent counterparts, he said.
Other statistics paint a grim picture. One hundred percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school is surrounded by a neighborhood where more than 40 percent of the families live below the poverty line.
Susan B. Anthony became the model for the kind of school Off the Front wants to help by encouraging kids to be more active in terms of exercise and performance at school.
“You don’t have to be an A student, but you have to demonstrate some effort. But it is not so hard that it is unattainable,” Slayden said of the point system. “We wanted to strike a fine balance between this doesn’t need to be the moon but we wanted them to feel like ‘I paid for the bike. I earned it with my labor.’”
Off The Front partners with schools in two phases: The first phase targets fourth graders, who have the opportunity to earn a new bicycle, lock and helmet through a combination of increased fitness, better academic performance and service to others.
During phase two, Off The Front seeks to improve the health of all students at the school by encouraging everyone to walk or bike daily. One of the unconventional incentives is giving students a scanner to wear in the backpacks. Each time they arrive to school in an active way, like walking or biking, they are scanned and earn points. These points are then turned into credits towards a new bike.
Throughout the year they earn wristbands, which are color coded based on how far students have walked or ridden during the year.
Slayden was initially concerned that wristbands or other treats might not be enough to get kids to participate. But he found that the more he visited and talked to the kids, the more they embraced the concept.
“They get fired up. It almost becomes a positive peer pressure environment,” he says. “We have kids that are fit doing it. We have others that are morbidly obese doing it. It has been phenomenal.”
Students who want to earn bicycles can also earn points for a wide variety of activities. Volunteers help students document point-earning activities like better test scores on district benchmarks, helping parents with chores, or good behavior at school.
Joy Nunes, the principal of Susan B. Anthony, said there was an unforeseen benefit from the program. “We have seen an increase in attendance since we started Phase Two,” Nunes said. “Kids want to come to school to get zapped.”
Kids at both Susan B. Anthony and nearby Pinedale Elementary were ecstatic at ceremonies held to award bikes, Slayden said.
Off The Front plans to launch a Phase I program at four elementary campuses during the next school year. If he can find the funding, Slayden would like to expand to even more schools. Until then, the battle of fighting childhood obesity will be fought one elementary school at a time.