The obesity epidemic is hurting West Virginia’s children, but solutions are already sweeping the state.

Pediatrician Dr. Jamie Jeffrey is no stranger to helping kids live healthier. She’s been running the HealthyKids Wellness and Weight Management program at Charleston Area Medical Center for 15 years. However, as the years passed, she noticed a startling trend. “I started seeing kids as young as 6 or 7 years old with prediabetes,” she says. The situation only grew worse. “These kids were already developing fatty liver, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. With the increasing cases of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes in kids, they’re not going to have a normal life.”

Type 2 diabetes isn’t the only ailment that can stem from childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excess weight puts kids at risk for a whole slew of issues. Among them are asthma, anxiety, depression, joint problems, and sleep apnea as well as the high blood pressure and high cholesterol that Jeffrey noticed in her patients.

But helping kids and their families make healthy choices doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s actually quite simple. In fact, it’s as easy as 1-2-3—or rather, 5-2-1-0.

Counting Down

All anyone has to do is open an internet browser to find contradictory information about what’s good for you and what’s not. “The problem with nutrition is that there are so many myths and fads floating out there,” Jeffrey says. “There’s what our grandmother tells us, what our pediatrician tells us, what our neighbor tells us, and what the person on the cereal box tells us.”

In 2009, thanks to efforts between community partners and a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, KEYS 4 HealthyKids was born. As the director for KEYS 4 HealthyKids, Jeffrey says its mission is to change policy and create environments that make the healthy choice the easy choice. KEYS stands for four concepts—Knowledge, Eating healthy, Youth being active, and Safety and empowerment. Knowledge, in particular, is the light that can shine the way through nutrition confusion. As part of that initiative, KEYS 4 HealthyKids advocates 5210. This nationally recognized campaign keeps everyday healthy living simple with four rules:

5: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables.
2: Spend two hours or less on recreational screen time.
1: Have at least one hour of physical activity.
0: Consume zero sugary drinks—milk and water only.

That last rule of no sugary drinks is one of the most important. “Increasing obesity rates have been directly linked to sugary beverages, and not only to soda, which is one of the worst culprits, but also to sports drinks and juices,” Jeffrey says. “As a matter of fact, most 20-ounce sodas contain 15 to 16 teaspoons of added sugar, and most apple juices contain 11 teaspoons.
So, there’s almost as much added sugar.” To put those numbers into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends children under 18 years old consume no more than 6 teaspoons per day.

The push to encourage healthier drink choices has begun to have ripple effects, too.

Getting schooled

In 2014, the American obesity epidemic came to the big screen with the documentary Fed Up. The film highlighted how more sugar in our diets has led to poorer health. Mandy and Kirk Curry, founders of Healthy Kids Inc., pitched an idea to KEYS 4 HealthyKids to get the movie into West Virginia schools. The groups teamed up and did just that.

They purchased copies of Fed Up for schools throughout the state. Many teachers incorporated it into their lesson plans, and several students took action. “We had one school where teens came up with the idea to put a water bottle–filling station in their school, and it was a great way to get rid of plastic,” says Mandy Curry. Now, she adds, water stations are becoming a regular sight throughout West Virginia’s schools.

Better access to clean water aids on the nutritional side, Jeffrey points out. “Every time we turn around, there’s another school that’s putting in a water-filling station,” she says. “That also combats the 0 of 5210 and makes sure kids are drinking water and not sugary drinks.”

Empowerment is critical for inspiring real change in the ways kids eat and live. One school Jeffrey says she worked with was George Washington High School in Kanawha County. “They started a healthy living club and, to this day, they have a class full of hydroponic gardens,” she says. These gardens use water instead of soil and allow students to grow lots of leafy greens, all within a classroom-sized space.

Clearly, the seeds for healthy living have been planted. Some fruits have already sprouted and, with the continued dedication of folks like Curry and Jeffrey, it’s only a matter of time before more begin to bloom.

Growing for the future

Childhood obesity isn’t an issue only for West Virginians. It’s a problem for Americans. The good news is, from 2010 to 2016, studies show national obesity rates dropped among children ages 2 to 4 who participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, more commonly known as WIC. The not-sogreat news is that the WIC numbers tallied West Virginia’s obesity rate at more than 16 percent, one of the nation’s highest. The rate’s rise has slowed down compared to years past. Still, plenty of opportunities for change remain.

Curry knows that eating healthy can seem intimidating and time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. She and her husband started Healthy Kids Inc. in 2010 when their own children were toddlers. “We were both working long hours, with young kids at home, and we felt like we were just eating terribly,” Curry says. They partnered with a registered dietician and a chef, created healthy recipes, filmed meal prepping videos, and built technology to make it easy for others to whip up delicious, hearty dinners all week long.

The duo also launched Start A Garden, which aims to make gardening simple and fun, too. “Around 2017, we merged the two, and we began to show families how to grow the food that was going to be a part of their
meal,” Curry says. Through both her personal ventures and through partnerships with Jeffrey, Curry hopes to take the intimidation out of cooking and gardening, all the way from the schoolyard to the backyard. Her plans for the future include getting more fresh, nutritious food into the hands of kids who need it most.

As for KEYS 4 HealthyKids, the program recently set its sights on reaching even younger kids by working with early childcare centers. Their childcare initiative, Key 2 a Healthy Start, began as a pilot in Kanawha County and used Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care (NAP SACC) tools to measure its success. By 2015, Key 2 a Healthy Start spread statewide. The initiative hosts group learning workshops focused on nutrition and gardening, physical activity, and healthy role modeling. Participating centers complete NAP SACC pre- and post-assessments to determine improvement. “We’ve worked with more than 100 centers in West Virginia over a five-year period. We did a three-year evaluation that showed excellent results in NAP SACC scores,” Jeffrey says. For example, they saw teachers take more initiative to sit down with the kids, dine with them, and model good nutritional habits.

More efforts to encourage kids to eat healthy and live healthy are on the horizon. A clear finish line may not be in sight, but Jeffrey is going to keep doing her part to improve the health and wellness of West Virginia’s little ones. “My work came out of seeing my patients suffer. It’s a constant motivator,” Jeffrey says. “We have to do better by our kids. Everybody has a role to play.”

posted on May 22, 2020

images courtesy of Keys for Healthy Kids

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