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Battling obesity (and maybe Hot Cheetos) in Michigan schools

May 8, 2015

The state is making gains against obesity in younger kids, but the health of older kids and adults is not improving as much.
Credit USAG-Humphreys / flickr

The number of obese preschool kids in Michigan is going down, that's the good news.

The health of older kids and adults, however, is not improving that way. Michigan is the 11th most overweight state in the country.

Low-income kids are most at risk of being overweight. This isn’t just because poor communities tend to be “food deserts”, as many people think. Even when healthy choices are available in those neighborhoods, most people still don’t choose them. A person’s education plays a big role in making that decision.

Liz Nienhuis works at the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan and manages several nutrition education programs in schools across the state. She and her team teach kids the difference between “sometimes” foods (like chocolate) and “always” foods (like carrots).

Nienhuis’ programs have the nearly impossible task of getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables. When nutrition educators first enter a classroom, they see kids with a lot of junk food and huge portion sizes – things like kindergartners with king sized candy bars in their lunchbox and Nienhuis says Hot Cheetos are her arch nemesis.

Nienhuis says that in the majority of schools they work in, at least 90% of students get free or reduced price lunch. Last year, nearly 30,000 kids from families who receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) were in the program. The program is also used in about 150 early childhood centers, like Head Start.

The programs combine evidence based practices with kid-friendly characters like Regie the Superhero Broccoli to get kids to try more healthy snacks. Because of the program, a vast majority of kids – almost three quarters – say they eat healthy foods and are open to trying things they’ve never tasted before.

Regie the Superhero Broccoli
Credit Liz Neinhuis / The National Kidney Foundation of Michigan

Food is only part of the battle

Nienhuis sees a lot of kids sitting still for long periods of time, a trend we’ve noticed before. Most schools only give students 45 minutes of physical activity a week, says Nienhuis, “That’s not nearly enough.”

Michigan law requires public schools to teach health and physical education to kids, but it doesn’t specify how much or how often activity is expected. The Michigan State Board of Education recommends schools offer kids daily opportunities for exercise, but they don’t require it.

One of the schools Nienhuis works in doesn’t even have a P.E. teacher. They have primary teachers fill in to teach, “which is like telling a math teacher to just go teach biology for the afternoon with no training,” she says.

Kids aren’t getting much physical activity once they leave school, either. Less than 50% of Michigan kids get regular exercise.

More screen time could be partially to blame, but kids who live in poor neighborhoods have another barrier to worry about: safety.  For a lot of kids Nienhuis works with, “it would be unsafe for them to play outside by themselves. It’s a huge barrier, and a sad one.” The programs that Nienhuis oversees show kids exercises they can do inside, instead.