After-school program addresses eating, activity

May. 19, 2014 @ 11:18 AM

Last month, the children in Christenberry Community Center's after-school program were winners in a variety of Olympic-themed challenges.

Their award? Hopefully, a longer lifespan.

Each of the Olympic-themed games taught children about one aspect of making healthier choices about food or activity.

There was an event centered on choosing nutritious foods from a pool. Another focused on the federal government's revamped "food pyramid," a dinner plate divided into segments. At a third station, students tasted some healthier alternatives to juice mixes or soft drinks -- water flavored with cucumber and with lemons and limes, 100 percent juice mixed with seltzer, and skim milk -- and got instructions on how to make them at home.

"I feel the kids will try a lot of new things in this environment," in part because of peer pressure, said Cheryl Hill, director of Knox County Health Department's NEAT, or Nutrition Education Activity Training, program.

The seltzer mix was probably most popular. While one girl said she typically drinks water or milk at home anyway, another dropped her eyes and said, "I'm ashamed of this, but soft drinks" are what she drinks more often at home.

The Olympic program was produced in partnership with two University of Tennessee nutrition students, who wrote a mini-grant for the supplies and put together a "toolkit" so it can be replicated at other sites. The Tennessee Department of Health also funds NEAT through a Project Diabetes grant.

Knox County Health Department and Knoxville Parks and Recreation started NEAT in 2006 to fight childhood obesity by targeting youth at risk for developing unhealthy lifestyle and eating behaviors. Now 24 after-school sites -- including Parks and Rec programs, YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs -- get healthy snacks and nutrition lessons that incorporate physical activity from NEAT.

They can work toward earning a "NEAT-approved" designation, which requires some policy changes and guidelines to the after-school program and the habits of its staff. Eleven YMCA sites and two Parks and Rec programs have earned this designation so far, and last fall Parks and Rec began serving at all its after-school sites only snacks that fall into NEAT's healthiest category: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean proteins.

The lessons, which are evidence-based, work, said Cindy Hill, program director for the Christenberry after-school program: "I can't get my kids to watch a movie here -- they want to MOVE."

But a large part of the goal is getting the children to take changes home. Parents were invited to the Olympics, though few came. So children were given handouts with recipes, snack suggestions and ideas for healthy changes.

"We're working on the kids quite a bit, but we want to get the parents involved," Hill said.

This includes six-week evening cooking classes for parents at two Boys and Girls Clubs: Haslam Center in North Knoxville and Vestal in South Knoxville. Next, the classes, which focus on easy, healthy recipes, might be opened to the children themselves, Hill said: "I'm finding there are a lot of kids who don't know how to cook."