Five Phila.-area schools to begin wellness program

Jonathan Hamm, ' farm educator, harvests yellow summer squash from the Farm Explorer truck with campers who were visiting Eakins Oval on Friday. Greener Partners
Jonathan Hamm, ' farm educator, harvests yellow summer squash from the Farm Explorer truck with campers who were visiting Eakins Oval on Friday. Greener Partners (Greener Partners)
Posted: August 23, 2013

Fourth graders in five schools scattered around Southeastern Pennsylvania will begin a wellness program next month that combines fitness and nutrition at a level of intensity that organizers hope will lead to lasting changes as the children grow into adulthood.

Chefs who trained with restaurateur Marc Vetri's organization will take over school kitchens once a week, preparing nutritious meals served family style with real plates and silverware. A fitness company will provide exercise training. Food records filled out by parents online will trigger annual feedback from dietitians about how to improve their children's diets.

"It actually takes a village to keep a child healthy," said Lorina Marshall-Blake, president of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, which is spearheading the $2.7 million Healthy Futures Initiative. It will follow students in 20 public, parochial, and charter schools - five "core" institutions will receive the full program, with 15 getting small pieces of it - for three years, through sixth grade.

"For me, I just believe that a healthier you becomes a happier you. If we're making all the right decisions," said Naomi Johnson Booker, chief executive officer of the Global Leadership Academy charter school, "we aren't going to have all these diseases following us."

Booker said her West Philadelphia school building was already "a wellness school" - it has a garden and does not serve red meat, white pasta, or white bread - but "this program takes us to the next level."

The IBC Foundation, which is funded solely by Blue Cross, announced key parts of the initiative last year and will hold a news conference Thursday with more details. The core schools, in addition to the Leadership Academy, are William H. Zeigler Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia; Assumption BVM School in West Grove, Chester County; Park Lane Elementary School in Darby, Delaware County; and a fifth to be named later. Most serve more low-income students than the rest of their county, officials said.

School wellness programs that cross disciplines such as nutrition and fitness are not the norm, although experts increasingly see comprehensive approaches as necessary to change behaviors, especially for the long term.

The largest study of the concept, involving 42 schools at seven sites nationwide, including Philadelphia, measured the impact on diabetes risk factors of a school-based intervention that combined nutrition, physical activity, behavioral knowledge, and communication. That research, led by Temple University, published findings in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010 that showed reductions in several risk factors for type 2 diabetes after three years.

Some details of the new initiative remain vague, and the IBC Foundation said specific goals had not yet been drawn up. But plenty of data are being collected for that purpose.

Nurses from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will be assisting the schools in recording height, weight, and chronic diseases. Dietitians from Villanova's MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education will conduct focus groups to measure children's awareness of health issues and track their food intake via an online tool filled out by their parents.

Five additional schools will serve as controls for a study of the initiative by Stella Volpe, chairwoman of Drexel University's department of nutrition sciences, who was also involved with the diabetes research three years ago.

"What makes this unique," Volpe said, "is all these community partners that are involved. It might excite the community more."

The most significant of them is the Vetri Foundation for Children, which began its "Eatiquette" program in the first of five schools last year and will double that number in September.

At least once a week, chefs connected with or trained by the restaurateur's group will announce what healthy dishes they have whipped up and discuss the ingredients. Students sit at round tables with real plates and utensils and are served by jacketed peers who act as table captains.

Having time to eat, relax, and talk like a family - rather than a cafeteria-line scramble - is a key goal. Discovering and appreciating real food like wild rice salad and lemon-roasted chicken is another.

"I think sometimes they are surprised that they like chicken when it is not a chicken nugget," said Kelly Herrenkohl, director of the Vetri Foundation.

While most of the overall initiative is aimed at fourth graders, Vetri's takeover of the kitchens will benefit the entire school. Indeed, finding school buildings that already had full kitchens (dishwashers are being installed) was a big factor in selecting schools, as was the requirement that they include fifth and sixth grades so that the students could be followed for three years.

Another perspective on nutrition will come from Greener Partners, a nonprofit that uses a farm on wheels - a truck called the Farm Explorer - to teach children about nutrition and taste.

The truck will visit schools, and then staffers will take just-picked foods to classes to discuss, taste, and make into something - salad and maple balsamic vinaigrette dressing in October, "kale chip popcorn" in December.

"We take spaghetti squash and we make it into spaghetti, and they just gobble it up," said Meg MacCurtin, education director for the Malvern-based nonprofit. "They are amazed they are eating something that is completely plant-based."

Fit Essentials, a small Philadelphia fitness company, will lead students in weekly training and exercises. Philadelphia Union will send players to inspire (and sign autographs), as well as pop-up soccer fields, the IBC Foundation said.

Tynetta Thomas, whose grandfather died of diabetes, said the nutritional aspects of the initiative, and the naturally relaxed pace of family-style meals, most intrigued her when they were described to parents at the Global Leadership Academy, where her 8-year-old daughter is entering fourth grade.

"I want her to be able to try different foods," said Thomas, who lives in the Northeast, "and to know that the same things you buy in the supermarket can be freshly grown."


Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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