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Fall 2012, Vania Beltran

San Diego schools and community fight childhood obesity

By: Vania Beltran

Childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled over the last 30 years, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of obese or overweight children is even higher among minorities such as Hispanics and African Americans. Health experts are concerned because obese children are more likely to become obese adults with a greater risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and even cancer.

Kelly Austin, a metabolism specialist in North County San Diego, says that eating too many refined sugars and carbohydrates including too much bread, pasta, cereal, sweets or soda can lead to obesity and other health problems.

“We need to educate the whole family about nutritional changes that everyone must follow to prevent serious diseases in the future such as diabetes,” she said.

Students get to taste some of the food prepared with ingredients grown at Olivewood Gardens, a learning center that teaches the community about the benefits of naturally grown food.

Students get to taste some of the food prepared with ingredients grown at Olivewood Gardens, a learning center in National City that teaches the community about the benefits of naturally grown food.

A good nutritious diet combined with moderate exercise can help prevent childhood obesity and ensure a healthier lifestyle for the whole family.

“Any play is great,” Austin said. “Unstructured play, to just run around, jump, climb and move is perfect. I prescribe a family walk after dinner every night for all my patients. Really, just getting people outside away from the TV and computers is the key.”

The issue of childhood obesity has been a concern and an issue of debate for many including the First Lady Michelle Obama, who initiated the “Let’s Move” campaign in 2010. The campaign’s purpose was to prevent childhood obesity through healthy eating and exercise. That same year, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Among other requirements, the bill demands higher standards for food served in school cafeterias.

Public schools adapt to new food standards

To comply with the higher standards, school districts in San Diego County have been changing what they offer students healthier meal options. Eric Span, the food services manager at Sweetwater Union High School District, helped incorporate more nutritious options to the district’s menus.

“One of the things we did was sit down and look at our menus and see where we could make changes to meet these regulations, and how could we go above and beyond to ensure that our students received the best that we can offer them,” Span said.

The changes at the Sweetwater district included slight modifications such as preparing the pizza crust with 51 percent whole grains instead of flour dough.  The bigger changes included incorporating fruit and cottage cheeses plates, chicken mole and even seafood cocktails.

“We also went from a one-week cycle menu to a two-week cycle menu so that it is not every Monday that you get the same thing,” Span said. “That can be a little bit boring.”

Students at Olympian High School in Chula Vista have adapted surprisingly well to the new menu.

Teaching kids to grow and eat nutritious food

But nutritional changes for children do not stop at their school’s cafeterias. Off campus, there are other alternatives to learn about healthy eating such as Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center. Opened in February 2010 and located in National City, the community and garden resource facility is a place where children and their families can learn about naturally grown food.

Olivewood Gardens teaches all stages of meal preparation from planting and harvesting the food to cooking it and bringing to the table. Ally Welborn, the volunteer coordinator at Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center, helps teach students about several stages of food preparation such as planting, harvesting and cooking.

Olivewood Gardens does not only focus on teaching the kids what they should eat to be healthy, but educates adults as well. A “Kitchen Commandos” class shows adults how to cook nutritious recipes at home on a budget.

The center hosts many open events per year including tours for Spanish speaking families as well as school tours for children in third to fifth grade. Children who visit Olivewood Gardens on a school tour have to take a “No, thank you” pledge in which they promise they’ll at least try whatever they cook for the day.

“It usually works,” Welborn said.

The staff admits they do experience some difficulties in getting children to try some of the vegetables.

“One girl said ‘I don’t eat plants,’ and she’d refuse to try it,” Welborn said. This type of mentality is exactly what Olivewood Gardens is trying to change.

“The whole idea is that we want them to try something new” Welborn said. “We’re hoping that next time they’re offered a new vegetable they’ll remember that they tried something similar before and it wasn’t that bad.”

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