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University program to combat obesity goes statewide

By Tui Rademaker, Daily News Reporter
Published September 18, 2013

Let’s do it for the kids — or at least their eating habits.

Working closely with academic and commercial partners, a University program aimed at fighting obesity in local middle schools has expanded into a statewide initiative aimed at fighting obesity, encouraging exercise and promoting healthier lifestyles.

Building Healthy Communities — a new offshoot of the University of Michigan Health System’s ‘Project Healthy Schools’ initiative — is in the process of implementing programs in 28 middle and elementary schools across the state. The program is the result of collaboration between the University, health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Wayne State University, the Michigan Fitness Foundation and the United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

The program is intended to reverse Michigan’s growing obesity problem. About 26 percent of Michigan adolescents are overweight or obese, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Internal medicine Prof. Kim Eagle is the co-founder of Project Healthy Schools, which has been working with local middle schools since 2004. He said the program is designed to make cafeteria food healthier, limit the availability of junk food and sugary beverages in vending machines and encourage exercise.

“For each school, we develop enrichment programs that may focus on walking clubs, volleyball programs or creating a school garden to further enrich the experience for middle schoolers,” Eagle said.

This is the first year for Building Healthy Communities, which works with middle schools of associated with Project Healthy Schools and adds elementary schools. Eagle said the collaborative strategy was made possible by their partners modeling elementary-school programs off Project Healthy School’s established plan for middle schools.

“Our health system has created a model that other health systems in the state … want to emulate, where they give back to their communities through a very clear activity that is working with schools to try to create healthier environments and educational messaging to improve the health of our youth,” Eagle said.

Eagle said the program’s main focus is on low-income areas, which often lack options for residents to buy nutritious food at affordable prices.

“The (obesity) rate is particularly high in lower-income communities where the resources or access say to fresh foods and vegetables through typical grocery stores or the access to safe recreational facilities and/or programs are reduced because of financial pressure,” he said.

Eagle said the 28 schools were chosen based more on a “keen willingness” to implement the initiative rather than any concrete criteria.

St. Thomas the Apostle School in Ann Arbor is the only institution within Washtenaw County to be a beneficiary of the program.

Eagle said the program’s administrators are working on achieving funding self-sufficiency within a few years. Once initial set-up costs have been covered and volunteers have been trained to run the educational programs, he anticipates upkeep costs will be minimal.

“All the evidence and data show that when children are healthier, they are more likely to succeed in the classroom and beyond,” said Registered dietician Shannon Carney Oleksyk, an advisor for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “These programs encourage children to make healthy choices at a young age, laying the foundation for a healthier, stronger Michigan future.”