Tackling childhood obesity in the classroom

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On the Web: www.letsgo.org

AUBURN — A few years ago, Woodstock Elementary School in Bryant Pond joined “5-2-1-0 Let’s Go!” a program offered by the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

Since then, classroom teachers lead exercise breaks between lessons. More students participate in sports, including skiing, said fifth-grade teacher Karen Wilson. And teachers incorporate nutrition lessons in regular classes.

The program was formed to combat obesity, which doctors say has become a childhood epidemic.

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The program has made a “huge difference” with the kids, Wilson said. Students have healthier habits. “Kids are asking their parents to buy more fruits and vegetables.”

To share that kind of success story, a “5-2-1-0 Goes to School” conference for teachers was held Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn. About 150 teachers from across Maine attended.

Dr. Victoria Rogers, director of the Kids CO-OP, showed charts that illustrated the spread of obesity in America. “This is the call to action,” she said. Overweight Americans will drive up health care costs.

Maine children are statistically heavier than the national average, she said. Poorer children are more likely to be overweight or obese, because in part they lack access to healthy food.

“Our Medicaid kids are heavier than our non-Medicaid kids,” Rogers said.

The program started small in 2004 for southern Maine doctors to have conversations with parents. After it was shared with schools, “it took off,” Rogers said. Today, hundreds of schools from Houlton to Wells use the program with the “5-2-1-0” numbers.

Each number carries a prescription, Rogers said.

Five means children need five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Teachers and schools may want to reach out to farmers or get involved in community agriculture, Rogers said. If local or fresh produce is not available, frozen and canned is OK, as long as they don’t contain added sugar or salt.

The number 2 means children should spend no more than two hours a day watching television or on the computer.

“That’s a constant battle,” Rogers said, adding that she’s the mother of a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old. In addition to too much time being inactive, “children get bombarded with so much advertising of unhealthy food: McDonald’s, Burger King, SpongeBob.”

The number 1 means children need one hour of physical activity each day.

“If anybody wants to stand and walk, you go, because you’re going to listen to me better,” Rogers said as she lectured to teachers. “The same thing happens with kids.” Teachers need to incorporate physical activity into their day, she said.

Zero is Rogers favorite number, she said. It stands for the fact that children need drinks with zero sugar. Soda is a big offender. “When your kids go to softball, they don’t need Gatorade that’s got sugar in it. They need water.”

Rogers urged teachers to think about ways to turn their healthy class activities into policies that won’t end after they leave. She told them to expand their efforts by working in teams and networking outside school.

She praised them as national leaders.

“Maine schools are ahead of the nation,” Rogers said. “We have more of these teachers actively engaged than other places. I work with the National American Academy of Pediatrics. They ask, ‘How do you get your schools to do that?’”

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