skip to main content

How to help kids get healthy and active: start with schools

By Scott Bowen November 21, 2016

With childhood obesity rates skyrocketing, a group of educators and officials in 2002 decided to enlist the community’s help. Underscoring then U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher’s declaration that American obesity had become an epidemic, they created the public-private partnership Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK).

AFHK’s founders, including Satcher, agreed that “talk was cheap, and it was time to get something started on the ground so that direct action could be taken against childhood obesity,” said AFHK CEO Rob Bisceglie.

Since its founding, the initiative has sought to counteract childhood obesity by addressing the health needs of 12.9 million American students in more than 29,000 public schools. AFHK has further set a goal that by 2030 all U.S. schools will provide healthy foods, quality health education and comprehensive physical activity for their students.

AFHK programming helps schools figure out how to do things such as creating school wellness teams to assess health programming within a school and implement improvements, starting breakfast and physical education programs to support student academic performance and attendance, and breaking ground for school vegetable gardens to teach children where their food comes from and how to make healthy choices. Corporate-partner grants from several national partners, including Cargill, provide the funding.

Over nearly 15 years, AFHK has grown from having 700 state-level volunteers nationally to a volunteer network that now surpasses 100,000 parents, teachers, administrators and cafeteria staff across nearly three dozen states.

The value of partnerships

“Corporate partners were part of the AFHK plan from the very beginning, because they’re part of the solution,” Bisceglie said. “We seek those win-win situations with companies that have aligned missions.”

The AFHK-Cargill connection is exactly the kind of win-win Bisceglie describes. Cargill, which began supporting the group earlier in 2016, offers expertise in global nutrition and navigating the food system; AFHK has developed the community-level network — and know-how — to assert the everyday requirements of good nutrition.

As a company seeking to improve nutrition and education for kids, Cargill wanted to partner with AFHK to connect in communities where Cargill operates. Tola Oyewole, who leads the partnership with AFHK for Cargill, saw the key combination in AFHK’s work. “Action for Healthy Kids brings access to nutritious food together with education and physical activity,” she said.

AFHK intends to offer Cargill-funded grants during the 2016-2017 school year, serving more than 22,000 children in 50 schools across three states: Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Those 50 schools will receive grant funding of $1,000 each to support the startup or expansion of school-based nutrition and physical activity, and will receive AFHK’s technical assistance, including help with activating school health teams.

The role of parents

The childhood-obesity increase rate may have leveled off, but the trend still demands a lot of effort to reverse it and undo its damage. That’s where parents come in.

“Parent engagement is one of the next frontiers [for AFHK],” Bisceglie said. Until parents get involved as volunteers in their kids’ schools, and reinforce health messages outside of the school and when school isn’t in session, “We’re just not going to get to where we want to be” on child health and obesity, he said.

Parents for Healthy Kids, an AFHK program, will address this aspect of the problem. The approach calls for developing and supporting parent engagement both inside and outside the school, and working directly with parents to help them understand how to constructively engage with their kids’ schools and bring their value to boosting childhood health.

“Parents are so busy — I know,” said Bisceglie, a father of three and a school board member. “But I think it’s so important that as we move forward to solve this problem [of childhood obesity], we get parental engagement in a much more significant way as part of our solution.”

Scott Bowen is a freelance writer and editor who has written for True/, and Fortune Small Business. His fiction has been anthologized in “Tight Lines: Ten Years of the Yale Anglers’ Journal.”

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.