Teaming up for healthier lifestyles

Study shows nutrition and activity efforts by Cheney School District, Parks and Recreation Department may be paying off


John McCallum

Maddie McDowell pours apples into a container in preparing to make smoothies, with the help of Paige Tobin (left) and Sophia Ramirez (right) at Cheney Parks and Recreation Department’s Camp ECHO in August.

In the battle with obesity, it’s not just junk food alone that’s the enemy.

It’s also a culture that says if it’s healthy, it can’t taste good. It’s fighting an attitude.

In this fight, the Cheney School District may be seeing the lines of battle shifting in favor of students and families, thanks to steps taken by the district and city of Cheney that promote new attitudes towards eating as well as practices.

According to recently released results of a two-year study of 476 students in the district, “the percentage of students classified as overweight/obese has improved over time,” dropping from 32.8 percent in the fall of 2011 to 30.7 percent after measurements this past spring. It’s also led to a reduction in the mean BMI – body mass index – from 68.1 percent to 66.2 percent.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Cheney School District wellness coordinator Laura Martin, said. “To be honest I think the results we’re seeing are happening a lot sooner than we thought.”

“The good news is, what we’re doing is working,” Cheney Parks and Recreation Director Paul Simmons added.

Changing attitudes that change habits

What the two entities have been doing is using ideas and methods that encourage a healthier lifestyle among not just children but adults – instituting a cultural change. It began several years ago when the school district began replacing soda pop in vending machines with milk.

In 2010, Simmons watched First Lady Michelle Obama launch her “Let’s Move America!” initiative and thought it would make a good project for Cheney. He sent out invitations and had about 40 people show up for the inaugural meeting of Let’s Move Cheney, which focused not only on physical activity but also diet.

“It’s not about 5k’s and 10k’s,” Simmons said. “It’s more about what every day habits.”

About the same time Empire Health Foundation was looking at using its resources on health issues in seven counties in Eastern Washington. The Foundation was created in 2008 by the sale of Deaconess Medical Center and Valley Hospital to Community Health Systems Inc., and in 2010 its board of directors was presented a position paper by a group of local experts on the idea of supporting measures combating obesity.

Sarah Lyman, EHF Strategic Grant Programs senior program associate, said the board agreed, seeking communities that were more rural and had a high degree of readiness to take on the issue of combating obesity. Because of efforts by the school district and Let’s Move Cheney, Lyman said “Cheney was one of the communities that rose to the top in that readiness.”

The Foundation also partnered with school districts in Othello, Wellpinit, Newport, Davenport and East Valley.

In spring of 2011 the Foundation provided training to Cheney staff on how to cook meals from scratch for large amounts of students. In the fall, four schools had their kitchens transformed into “cooking kitchens” where meals were cooked for all eight of the district’s schools.

The Foundation provided funding to pay for the conversion of the kitchens. They also provided funding for Martin’s position.

“Her job is to wake up everyday and think of ways to make a healthy school environment,” Lyman said.

One program Martin thought up began last year, “Vegetable Fear Factor,” modeled after the popular “Fear Factor” TV program where contestants win prizes after overcoming personal phobias. Thanks to an $8,000 grant from Action for Healthy Kids Martin’s idea was expanded to the districts four elementary schools where students selected and prepared different foods, and then offered them to their classmates to taste test.

“Snack Attack” is a program where families learn about replacing items like cookies at snack times with fun, healthier choices such as fruit and cheese kabobs. Martin has also held “Family Nutrition” nights at Sunset Elementary where families learn to prepare popular processed meals, like Hamburger Helper, using scratch ingredients.

“What we’re trying to do is show folks it’s easy to do and you can do it on a tight budget,” Martin said.

The district has done programs revealing how much of certain ingredients goes into junk foods. In one program Martin had parents and kids measure out the amount of sugar contained in a can of soda in teaspoons, something that proved “eye-opening” for parents.

The district’s efforts have been reinforced by similar measures with Cheney Parks and Recreation. Empire Health Foundation provided funding that eventually led to the hiring of Dane’ Standish as community obesity prevention coordinator, and Simmons said she has instituted nutrition measures at the department’s summer camps and after school programs that dovetail with those undertaken by the district.

“LMC is primarily involved as a community partner that is working simultaneously on the same effort from a different angle,” Simmons said in an email. “A lot of our programs happen in the schools and we partner directly with the district.”

Both organizations have taken steps to increase kids’ activity. Martin said recess is more structured, using Foundation monies to purchase basic activity equipment and setting up supervised games like tag, flag football and soccer. Instructors also get to know the kids that don’t get a lot of exercise and work with them to get them involved.

Cautious optimism

While officials in Cheney and at Empire Health are excited about the study results, the report’s analyst is a bit more guarded. Dr. Kenn Daratha, associate professor at Washington State University’s College of Nursing and the University of Washington’s School of Medicine said the results were “surprising” given the fact that measurements done in 2011-2012 and in the fall of 2012 were not encouraging.

In fall 2011, 65.5 percent in the study group of 476 – taken from second, sixth, eighth and 10th grade students – were at their recommended weight, with 18.7 percent classified overweight and 14.5 percent obese. In spring and fall of 2012, the percent of students at recommended weight declined while those overweight and obese actually increased.

But measurements last spring revealed a dramatic change. While the percentage of students classified obese rose slightly to 16 percent from 15.8, the percentage overweight dropped from 19.1 to 14.7 percent, causing the recommended weight percentage to increase to 68.7 percent from 64.1 percent.

That also led to a decrease in mean BMI, calculated using factors such as height, weight, age and gender and providing an indicator of where each student is when measured on a scale of 100 other hypothetical students. While Cheney’s drop from 68.1 to 66.2 is heartening, Daratha said it’s still too high.

“By definition it (mean BMI) should be at 50, so we have a ways to go,” he said.

And while the decrease in overweight students was seen in all four grades measured, the largest came from the 194 students in the second and sixth grades, particularly the latter.

“The younger grades’ loss is consistent with national results,” Daratha said. “They respond better (to new things) than older kids. Their habits are not so ingrained and they are also not as able to (easily) access stuff like fast foods.”

Still, Daratha, who has been doing adolescent health research since 2006, is encouraged by what’s happening in Cheney. Results from the other five school districts did show a small measure of decline in percentage of overweight students, while a control group of 3,471 students in grades second and six in Spokane School District 81 showed no reductions at all.

“We can’t say just yet (what the cause of weight loss is),” Daratha said. “We’ve observed it in one location and it’s very promising. All we know is something is happening in Cheney that’s not happening in the control group of 3,500 students.”

Next steps

For Simmons, Let’s Move Cheney has been about creating partnerships, getting people and organizations that typically work in what he termed “silos” to look outside at what’s possible.

“Part of Let’s Move Cheney is to knock down those silos and get people working together,” he said, adding he expects that to continue. A new initiative the city is working on is getting local restaurants to develop sections on their menus featuring healthier food options.

At the school district, Martin is expanding on what’s in place. Cheney was the only school district in Washington to receive a $60,000 planning grant from the Farm to School Program, and will use the money to kickoff an “Eat Real Food” curriculum this fall.

Some of the activities planned are a “Harvest of the Month” featuring fruits or vegetables grown in Washington, bringing in local farmers to talk to students in the five elementary schools, more taste tests as well as farmer profiles and fun farm and food facts.

Martin said she hopes the efforts help the district in its application next spring for a Farm to School implementation grant that is double the amount of the planning grant. Receiving the implementation grant would give the district the ability to procure locally grown foods for use in school menus.

For Lyman and Empire Health Foundation, the future is expanding on the results of the $1 million, $350,000 in Cheney, it has spent on promoting healthier lifestyles. That involves getting other cities to adopt a multi-prong approach – Newport is already working on something similar to Let’s Move Cheney – and creating changes that are sustainable.

“We never just write a check and go away,” Lyman said.

Finally for Daratha, the future is about more data collection to gain confidence in what’s taking place. There are many factors, including socio-economic, that lead to unhealthy lifestyles and those need to be quantified more.

Sometimes change isn’t just about what the data reveals, but is also about modifications of behavior and attitudes. The goal, he said, is to replicate what’s taken place in Cheney in other communities.

“We’ve known for some time that we need a multiple approach,” he said about weight reduction and health. “We haven’t changed just one thing. There is no magic bullet.”

John McCallum can be reached at


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