$500,000 grant given to several CSUN programs to battle childhood obesity

CSUN faculty and students are using a $500,000 grant from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat child obesity in the community.

The funded project, which will begin in January, is a three-pronged approach that aims to bring vital changes in a child’s academic routine through healthy eating habits, active recess time, and a quality physical education program.

The three-year project includes partnerships with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Northridge Hospital Medical Center, and parents and faculty from three elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley.

The three participating schools, Cohasset, Antoloa, and Gault, are all located in Van Nuys, where 29 percent of children under the age of 18 suffer from childhood obesity, according to a study conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

“Our goal for this project is to create a whole culture that eats healthier and engages in physical activity,” said Merav Efrat, family and consumer sciences professor.

Efrat will be spearheading the recess component for the project. She said she planned  to implement four activities that would prompt elementary students to be more active during recess time.

“Research studies have shown that kids are not active at recess,” Efrat said. “The children of this generation don’t play. They are either watching TV, on the computer, or playing with their Game Boys.”

Efrat said her plan will include repainting playground markings and conducting workshops for parents and faculty members that teach strategies on how to prompt children to be more active.

She said they would also provide schools with new playground equipment and a four-week recess plan, implemented by CSUN students, in which the children will be taught new games and activities that could be played during their morning break.

Ritamarie Little, associate director of the Marilyn Magaram Center for Food, Science, Nutrition, and Diabetes, has enlisted the help of Wooly Pocket Gardens to give children access to foods that will encourage healthy eating habits.

“The pocket gardens are structured in such a way that they create a built environment that address obesity without taking away space that can be used for physical activity and playtime,” Little said.

The pocket gardens are plant containers that can be suspended from a wall or laid on the ground, making them easily accessible without being inconvenient or bulky.

“We want the kids to be exposed to fresh produce by offering them gardening classes,” said Little, who plans on recruiting graduate students to help with the project.

Tami Abourezk and Mary Jo Sariscsany, CSUN kinesiology professors, who are leading the project’s physical education component, said they plan on introducing a quality physical education program that meets the standards of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

“We want to get kids moving by engaging and intriguing them with a new routine,” Abourezk said. “With so many kids being overweight or at-risk, addressing physical activity at the elementary level is important.”

Sariscsany said the majority of physical education programs in elementary schools are not standards-based.

“The people teaching these programs are not credentialed specialists,” she said.

Abourezk said the new  physical education program they plan on executing aims to involve the children in structured activities like takraw, superhero fitness training, and aerobic workouts like yoga and pilates that are atypical to the traditional programs that left children disconnected and uninterested.

“The new P.E. program is not based on the performance or ability level of the child but on foundational skills that all students have,” Sariscsany added. “We are not trying to create athletes.”

Abourezk said the goal for the program is to get people engaged in physical education and to promote a healthy lifestyle for a lifetime.

“It’s up to the community to make it happen and sustain this program,” Abourezk said.