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North Hills Monthly

Let’s Move Program Battles Childhood Obesity at an Early Age

Nov 30, 2017 01:19PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Let's Move Pittsburgh family yoga. Photo courtesy of Kristi Hoffman

With more than one-third of children classified as overweight, childhood obesity is a national epidemic. Let’s Move Pittsburgh, a local initiative modeled after a national program initially spearheaded by Michelle Obama to curb childhood obesity, promotes healthy choices and behaviors at an early age. We spoke with Dr. Sarah States, director of research and science education at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, about the impact it has made on our region to date.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the idea behind Let’s Move Pittsburgh (LMP)?

Dr. Sarah States (States): It is an initiative to target childhood obesity by bringing healthy foods and increased exercise to the forefront and really promoting healthier behaviors. We’re focused on promoting healthy choices and behaviors in the early years; a lot of lifetime habits are established in childhood, so we’re centered on identifying and building best practices among children and families. We want to uncover and remove barriers to change, and develop a consistent message among these different sectors in the community, including early childcare providers and the food industry, with the goal of universally fostering better habits.

NHM: How did Phipps become affiliated with the program?

States: In 2011, there was a national symposium held at Phipps called Feeding the Spirit—a number of museum associations attended to discuss how museums and public gardens play an important role around issues of food, health and sustainability. That was the galvanizing moment for Phipps in bringing LMP to fruition.

NHM: What made it the right program for Phipps?

States: Phipps goes beyond promoting the beauty and importance of plants, emphasizing sustainability and the vital connection between environmental health and human health. We know that being in nature is good for our health, and we showcase that connection and its life-changing benefits in all that we do. Phipps’ mission is committed to the broader idea of health and wellness, demonstrating that people, plants and health are all interconnected, and sustainability is critical to ensuring these interconnections are harmonious, mutually beneficial and preserved for future generations. One way we do this is by educating adults and children about the importance of gardening and healthy foods.

We wanted to make sure that LMP is fully integrated into Phipps’ educational and research platforms, supporting people and the planet. LMP is an effective platform to talk to people throughout the community, including the healthcare sector and families about the many ways to live better, healthier lives.

NHM: How much of an issue is childhood obesity?

States: The Allegheny County Department of Health has some fairly recent statistics from their community health assessment in 2015. During the 2011-12 school year, 31.8 percent of children ages 2-19 were overweight, and of those, 17 percent were obese. We’re pretty close to the national average—nationally about 31.2 percent of youth (ages 10-17) are considered overweight or obese.

NHM: Why is it important to reach children at an early age when it comes to making healthy lifestyle choices?

States: Research shows that when you instill these behaviors at a young age, it has better outcomes in the future. Parents play a major role in kids’ development and behavior and health, so finding ways for kids and their parents or caregivers to engage in these healthy behaviors early on helps to create better behaviors later in life.

NHM: Tell us about the Champion Schools Award Grant Program.

States: This program, begun in 2014, is a mini-grant program from Phipps where schools and early childcare centers can apply to fund independent and sustainable food-based programs or physical activity programs. We have three categories in the grant program:

• Bag the Junk promotes healthy food and nutrition education

• Get Kids Moving aims to increase physical education before, during or after school

• Teach Kids to Grow and Cook Food focuses on cooking classes or starting an edible garden program in the school

We award up to 40 grants per year. We’ve funded 27 nutrition projects, 76 physical education projects, and 79 cooking and gardening projects. We’ve reached more than 33,000 children since 2014…that’s quite an impact. And we are committed to doing more; we will be accepting more applications early next year.

We also recognize these Champion Schools at our 5-2-1-0 Speaker Series and Let’s Move Symposium that we host every two years. This year’s symposium occurred on Nov. 16 at Phipps.

NHM: What is the 5-2-1-0 program?

States: 5-2-1-0 represents different healthy behaviors to practice. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day; spend two hours or less of screen time every day; get one hour of physical activity every day; and zero is no sugary drinks. We’ve had a number of activities to drive awareness of this program and work with partners to change behavior for the better.

During the 5-2-1-0 Speaker Series and the Let’s Move Pittsburgh Symposium, Champion Schools get a chance to talk to others in the community and share what they’ve done to lead to healthier lifestyles. It is a nice way to foster discussion, create new ideas and build long-lasting partnerships. We also visit each school that wins an award to see their projects in action.

NHM: How has Let’s Move Pittsburgh been received since its inception?

States: We have had a great response. Healthcare providers are excited that we are helping them share the message of healthy behaviors and healthy foods to impact positive change. We’ve also had good feedback from parents who appreciated our symposium and speaker series.

We’re focused on continued outreach in the community; our staff visits schools and community events and harvest festivals almost every day, and we talk to teachers and kids and families about LMP initiatives. This year alone, through outreach events, we have reached almost 9,000 people. 

NHM: What are some ways that Let’s Move Pittsburgh has made an impact in our region?  

States: I think one of the most impactful programs has been our Champion Schools Program. We’ve had a number of schools continue to apply for the program and expand their own programs. For example, one school has created a garden and compost program; another has developed a yoga instruction program at the preschool level.

Additionally, from our evaluation, we have been able to see that kids, parents and healthcare providers are becoming more aware of the importance of 5-2-1-0 behaviors and improving practices by promoting healthy foods and reducing sugary drinks.

There’s a lot of information available; we hope we are able to create easy-to-remember, fun activities people can take action on to foster healthy behaviors. That’s what success look like: working together to make a difference in the lives of others.