The sobering prediction among health care professionals and educators is that the current generation of children may be headed for a severe health crisis.
Confronted by this crisis in pediatric health, California State University, Northridge’s’ departments of Kinesiology, Health Education and Nutrition Science are working in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Northridge Hospital Center for Healthier Communities to reverse the trends in the childhood obesity crisis.
Dr. Terri Lisagor, assistant professor in CSUN’s College of Health and Human Development and her team of community educators, interns and faculty, are using their $502,000 Housing and Urban Development grant to take a multi-faceted approach in educating, specifically with the 2700 elementary school-aged children in low-income communities in Van Nuys. The three-year project’s main objectives center on the vital role nutrition, healthy eating habits and physical exercise play in living a healthy and most importantly, long life.
“It’s been an eye-opening experience for all of us,” Lisagor said. “Most children we deal with don’t know that produce grows in the ground. They think it grows in the market.”
Addressing the nutrition-ignorance with Cohasset Street Elementary’s children alone would be ineffective, Lisagor said. A large part of the project is also dedicated to educating the parents and providing real-world incentives to participate in the parent workshops held at Cohasset every few weeks.
“For any parent that participates in all four of the parent-participation events (at the school), we will raffle off a $25 voucher for the Underwood Family Farms farmers market,” she said.
Parental involvement is a unique aspect of the project, which also includes physical activity and cooking components. Great efforts have been made to make the parents feel welcome, and capable of making important lifestyle changes.
Hissa Alsudairy, a CSUN student and one of the project’s student interns, was tasked with putting together an introductory presentation for the parents on their first workshop event on March 8. Alsudairy, who doesn’t speak Spanish, enlisted the help of a fellow bilingual student intern and together they worked to translate Alsudairy’s presentation.
“I did my best to memorize the presentation and classmates would help (me) translate terms to make it flow,” she said. “I felt it worked great. The parents were very participatory. They knew we weren’t Spanish speakers and were even helpful with pronunciation. It worked out really well.”
This dedication to working with parents and getting them to understand the impact they can have in causing positive lifestyle changes in the home is the primary area of focus for the Northridge Hospital’s Center for Health Communities, which is involved with the CSUN’s child obesity project.
Virginia Powell, the center’s Cohasset-project coordinator, has been working on health-oriented projects with the center since its inception five years ago. She said their goal is to affect change within the parents.
“(Parents) set the tone for whether others are physically active in the family, or if they are not,” Powell said. ”We find that with schools being so busy trying to reach their academic goals, it’s been hard for schools to find time to fit in P.E., especially within elementary schools. While studies show that those who are physically active do better in school and focus better, it’s hard for schools to fit that (component) in. So, we have an easier time focusing on parents, they come in voluntarily, they are interested and they have the time.”
In fact, Powell said parents who take on their own wellness find that in the process they improve their overall health.
“We’re making headway with the parents,” Powell said.
“We weigh and measure the parents, we do glucose and blood tests so we can get a pre and post-view of their health,” she said. “Most lose weight and improve their blood glucose levels. So we’re seeing the difference, we really are.”
The hope is that through the parents a lasting difference can be made with the children.
Since the launching of the project, parents have approached Alsudairy about what they feel is a disparity between the nutrition and lifestyle, education going on in the classroom and the food being served in the cafeteria.
“A parent complained that the cafeteria food is unhealthy and it doesn’t align with their lessons,” she said. “She felt it contradicted what she was trying to teach her child and that Cohasset wasn’t continuing the lesson. So we want to address this next time, and see if we can collaborate (with Cohasset).”
Cohasset principal, Andrea Yahudian, who is an advocate of the CSUN collaborative with Cohasset, understands the concern but said changing the menu is really out of Cohasset’s hands.
“The district dictates (the menu),” she said. “It’s not like Cohasset can make their own menu.”
The multi-faceted approach to the CSUN-Cohasset nutrition education collaborative is intended to leave no avenue uncharted, with the fundamental goal of creating communities that go on to educate one another, generation to generation and encourage each other to lead healthy lives.
“You have to teach within your own communities,” Lisagor said. “It’s them showing their community members what they’ve learned. Parents talking to children and the children are also talking with (their) parents. It takes a village, to work with a village, to educate a village.”