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Published February 07, 2011, 12:00 AM

Fargo-Moorhead groups partner to educate kids about food, exercise choices

Kristen Liebl is wearing a straw hat festooned with a banana, yogurt container and berries dangling from its brim – a nutritional fashion statement if ever there was one.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

Kristen Liebl is wearing a straw hat festooned with a banana, yogurt container and berries dangling from its brim – a nutritional fashion statement if ever there was one. She figures she has three or four minutes to deliver her message to a challenging audience: fifth-graders having lunch at Fargo’s Roosevelt Elementary School.

The room is vibrating with chatter and ambient energy that followed the students from recess down the hall in the school’s gymnasium to the cafeteria.

Liebl is ready for them. She is armed with a box of toasted oat cereal and a question: “What do you usually eat this for?”

“Grain?” a girl answers.

“Well, it is a grain,” Liebl replies. But she points out that cereal is a mainstay of breakfast, her theme for the day. “Eating breakfast is really important.”

A dietitian from Sanford Health, Liebl has been visiting the lunchroom at Roosevelt Elementary for a year and a half to deliver short lessons on the importance of good nutrition.

“I really try to focus a lot on fruits and vegetables, whole grains,” she says later. “Just really simple tips.”

Her cafeteria tutorials are part of broader efforts in Fargo-Moorhead to combat child obesity and to try to instill healthy habits among youths.

In North Dakota, 25.7 percent of children ages 10 to 17 were considered obese in 2007, according to the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality. The rate in Minnesota was 23.1 percent. Both states were better than the national rate, 31.6 percent.

A Fargo-Moorhead initiative to curb childhood obesity estimates that 9,000 children in Cass and Clay counties are obese.

Sanford Health is part of a broader partnership, also involving the Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative, the Fargo Youth Commission and TNT Kids Fitness, to prevent childhood obesity.

“The big thing is to implement more physical activity opportunities for kids,” says Nate Hendrickson, fitness director at TNT Kids Fitness, a nonprofit program based in Fargo.

The approach involves after-school physical fitness activities at TNT, 2800 Main Ave., as well as six other locations in Fargo-Moorhead for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Red River Valley. Between 350 to 400 kids ages 5 to 10 are participating.

The partners have received a three-year federal grant to help achieve their goals, which also involve nutritional education. For the grant to continue, the program must show results documented by research.

“We’re at the very beginnings of trying to put that study together,” says Kim Pladson, executive director of TNT Kids Fitness.

Researchers will measure body mass index, and organizers hope later to track bone density, cholesterol and the form of diabetes associated with being overweight.

“Hopefully the obesity rate will go down,” Hendrickson says.

Reducing obesity among children is important for a variety of reasons.

Obese children are much more susceptible to developing diabetes. One large study found that 61 percent of obese 5- to 10-year-olds already had risk factors for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Also, obese children have a higher likelihood of social and psychological problems, including discrimination and poor self-esteem. And obese children have a 70 percent chance of becoming obese adults – and confronting higher risks for heart disease, diabetes, stroke and certain cancers.

To try to prevent those illnesses, the community collaboration’s ultimate goal is to create a cultural environment that makes it easier to make the right choices.

Adding physical activity to after-school programs is a way of ensuring that those children get the exercise they need, says Rory Beil, director of the Dakota Medical Foundation’s Cass Clay Healthy People Initiative.

“We can’t assume they’re getting their physical activity at home at night,” he says. “If they are, it’s a bonus.”

Nutritional instruction, of course, is another way of trying to foster healthy habits in childhood that might endure into adulthood.

That certainly is Kristin Liebl’s mission with the kids she sees weekly at Roosevelt Elementary School, among other sites. She makes most of her presentations from scratch.

She comes during lunch time, so her talks don’t compete with the rest of the instructional day in the classroom. Nor is she competing with after-school activities.

Plus, she adds, “it’s just a great way to grab a lot of kids.”

And the results? Liebl hasn’t undertaken a study to see if her talks are changing the students’ eating habits.

But Becky McCollum, the kitchen manager at Roosevelt Elementary, has seen a difference since the talks began a year and a half ago.

“The kids are actually consuming more fruits and vegetables,” she says. “I’m positive. They really listen.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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