University Extension Service battles child obesity one class at a time

Educational assistants teach Minneapolis summer school students how to eat well.

Professor Mary Story needs only to go shopping to be reminded of her work.

“Just walk into any mall and you’ll see extreme cases of obesity,” said Story, a co-director of the Obesity Prevention Center and director of the Healthy Eating Research Program at the University.

In a generation in which one in three children is obese, Story considers her child obesity and diabetes research to be vital. And just like Story, the University Extension Service is working to improve children’s health.

This summer, the Extension Service is devoting four full-time workers to the Simply Good Eating program for Minneapolis summer schools.

“This is a really big year for us,” said Shelley Sherman , the coordinator for Extension health and nutrition education.

The program teaches between 1,200 and 1,500 elementary students about nutrition through magic, cooking demonstrations and games.

“We’ve done summer school work for a long time, but we haven’t had as many people involved in it,” Sherman said.

In all, Minneapolis students in the program receive three to four hours of instruction over the course of a month. To qualify for the program, at least 50 percent of the student population at the school must receive free and reduced lunch.

“Usually, we contact (the schools); this year they contacted us,” Sherman said. “This was actually rather extraordinary for us.”

Roger Dahmen has been teaching at schools as an Extension Service nutrition education assistant since 1990.

“I think the best thing that ever happens to me is when teachers tell me that students are changing their behavior because of what I do,” Dahmen said. “That’s the most rewarding thing.”

Sherman said that nutrition educational assistants hear from teachers and parents that their children are reading food labels in the lunch room and at the grocery store.

“So, at least temporarily, anecdotally, it does seem to make a difference,” Sherman said.

Michelle Bove , a summer school teacher at Burroughs Community School in Minneapolis, has seen an increase in overweight students in her seven years of teaching.

“I just think (Simply Good Eating) is a great program and I wish it could happen in all the grades,” she said.

ChaRisse Hopkins’ daughter RayVen has had three Simply Good Eating sessions in her class this summer.

“Nowadays, kids stick to junk food, so it’s good to have someone showing them what’s good and what’s not,” Hopkins said. “A lot of kids are just free to do and eat whatever they want, and they probably feel forced when parents are trying to get them to eat healthy food.”

But at a time when doctors are recommending cholesterol pills for children as young as 8, Simply Good Eating is only one attempt to fix what Story considers a major problem.

“The children today are the fattest they’ve ever been in the history of the U.S.,” Story said. “Obesity rates have actually tripled in the last 25 years.”

Dr. Gary Remafedi , a University pediatrics professor, said that the problem could be narrowed down to eating too much and not exercising enough to burn off the excess calories.

“A major contribution to that is our sedentary lifestyle; our use of television and computer games to entertain ourselves,” Remafedi said. “And, often, you have two parents working in order to make ends meet, and children are left on their own to forage for food.”

Remafedi said obesity in children is often an indicator of who would be obese as an adult.

“We have to have everyone to work together. There’s no magic bullet,” Story said.