Elementary Approach to Nutrition Program gives schoolchildren an early start on eating smart

April 26, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

Carly McCready, Courtney Colley and Desiree Broadwater are just 10 years old, but they are getting a head start on living to a ripe old age.

That's because they've learned that nutrition can make a difference. They know it's not good to eat too much fat, because that can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. They know it's good to get plenty of exercise and it's bad to smoke. And they also know that it's OK to have a hot dog occasionally, because the goal is balance.

"The most important thing I learned is that we should have a balanced diet," says Courtney. "And we shouldn't eat too many fatty foods. It's important to keep our body healthy so it'll run the way it's supposed to."

Carly, Courtney and Desiree, all fifth-graders at Berkshire Elementary School in North Point, are three of the thousand-some participants in the Food Re-education for Elementary School Health Program (FRESH) at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center (formerly Francis Scott Key Medical Center). The program is designed to find the most effective ways to get nutrition information into a community where preventive medicine just might lower health-care costs.

All of the children in the program are from 10 elementary schools in the area of southeastern Baltimore County around North Point and Dundalk. It's an area where studies have shown a high risk of heart disease.

"We've been dealing for many years with heart problems in adults, many young adults, adults in their 30s and 40s who have children this age," says Kerry J. Stewart, an associate professor of medicine who directs the Heart Health Program for the medical center.

So, a few years ago, "We kind of got excited about the fact that we should attempt to keep these kids healthy and keep them from becoming sick adults."

The area is one of heavy industry, where high-stress jobs, prevalent smoking and lack of information when the adults were young contribute to the fairly high incidence of heart disease, says Dr. Stewart, who is a clinical exercise physiologist.

With the children, Dr. Stewart says, "Our focus is really to change their habits, and change their attitudes, and change their knowledge in the short term, hoping that that will have a long-term carry-over effect. By developing good habits young, they can avoid many of the health problems."

The results so far have been impressive, at least by the numbers: Based on survey data, after three years the children's knowledge of nutrition issues increased 30 percent, use of high-fat foods fell 14 percent, use of high-sodium foods fell 16 percent, and use of high-sugar foods fell 3 percent.

There were no significant changes in body fat, blood-pressure or cholesterol levels as a result of the program, but Dr. Stewart says that's to be expected. "The kids are normal to begin with -- they're normal, healthy kids. The goal is to keep them healthy long-term."

The idea that children need nutrition information to make dietary changes that will ensure good health in adulthood has been gaining steam in recent years as it becomes clearer that some of the most deadly conditions in adults are diet-related -- heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and even cancer.

Health education is a statewide mandate in Maryland, which has established seven health goals. Most students in kindergarten through 12th grade get a series of lessons on fitness, nutrition, mental health awareness, alcohol and substance abuse awareness, among other topics, according to Larry Herrold, supervisor of health education for Baltimore County public schools.

"I think that it's critically important" to instill good nutrition information in children, says Ellen Haas, former consumer advocate at Public Voice for Food and Health Policy and now assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services. USDA has been conducting hearings on ways to improve nutrition of the nation's school lunch program.

After more than 300 witnesses and 2,400 written comments, Ms. Haas says, "We heard it time and time again: Children's dietary patterns begin when they're young. And their risk situation also begins when they're young . . . One of the things we asked in the hearings was, 'What are the consequences of children's dietary patterns?' We heard repeatedly that children do have serious outcomes from a diet that's high in fat and saturated fat." School lunch initiative

USDA is about to launch what Ms. Haas describes as "a major initiative" with regulatory and departmental actions, as well as some legislative changes, to ensure that meals served in schools meet the dietary guidelines issued by USDA.

There are 25 million children in the program, and half of them, Ms. Haas says, come from families that fall below the poverty level. "For many of them it's the only nutritious meal they get."

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