TOPPENISH – It’s Childhood Obesity Prevention Awareness Month, and afterschool programs in some Washington communities have made it an all-year priority. In the Yakima Valley, with the help of local chefs they have organized "Top Chef"-style competitions for middle-school students and restaurant visits and cooking classes for younger kids.
Melanie Willis, 21st Century Afterschool Program coordinator at the Northwest Community Action Center, says it's a fun way to get them interested in better nutrition.
"We have lots of different cultures and recipes,” she said. “And we're also introducing them just to new foods they've never experienced or might have never heard of - like mussels and ginger - and ingredients that are a little bit tough for even us to find in some grocery stores."
Parents are invited to dine on what their children have prepared, she adds, and also can take part in adult classes on nutrition education and shopping for healthy foods on a budget. The training for adults is funded by SNAP (food stamp) education grants, which are now in jeopardy in Congress.
Research has shown that diets of lower quality and less variety contribute to obesity. Linda Stone, food policy director, The Children's Alliance, says that is often the result when families experience food insecurity.
"They have to make really tough choices about what they purchase, and the cheapest calories there are sugar and fat," Stone said. "Sometimes, when it comes down to your kids having something and kids having nothing, that's the kind of dilemma that you're in."
The USDA has reported that Washington ranks 15th in the country for the number of families experiencing food insecurity. Stone explains most of those parents are working, but don't make enough money to feed their families without assistance.
In terms of obesity prevention, it isn't only about what kids eat, but about how much exercise they get, says Willis. She notes that the afterschool programs are working on that, too.
"One way to kind of entice them is taking the technology outdoors - maybe doing some blogs about their experience or taking pictures, documenting what they're seeing and then writing about it. They also take the cooking component and cook outdoors," Willis said.
She says kids also are learning about dance, martial arts, soccer and other activities to keep them moving, as well as to cultivate new interests.
A statewide Obesity Prevention Summit is coming up Dec. 4. Information about it is available at www.copcwa.org.