At two elementary schools in Orlando, FL, nutrition and pedestrian and bicycle safety skills are taught in unison to help children create healthier lifestyles for themselves.
The Florida Team Nutrition Initiative, which is part of the Step Up to School Wellness program by the United States Department of Agriculture, works to improve students’ lifelong eating habits, as well as their physical activity habits.
“It was designed to be a national model for schools to embrace Team Nutrition, which was already developed and moving forward,” said Dr. Toni Moody, a pediatrician with the Department of Health in Orange County. “As a tool, it’s a good lead for childhood obesity prevention.”
In 2003, Dr. Moody founded Health Masters Club, a nonprofit charity with the primary health initiative of reducing childhood obesity. Through Health Masters, Moody began to promote the Team Nutrition Initiative agenda. In 2007, Health Masters and the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) wrote a grant to start a Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program to complement the school wellness program.
“We integrate nutrition education into the Safe Routes to School curriculum, linking health and safety,” Moody said.
The FDOH received a $50,000 SRTS non-infrastructure grant from the Florida Department of Transportation. The FDOH used the funds to pilot the Team Nutrition Initiative at Ivey Lane Elementary School and Wheatley Elementary School, two pre-kindergarten through fifth grade schools with about 400 students each.
Before implementing the pilot SRTS program in fall 2007, Dr. Moody and her Healthy Schools team surveyed parents to determine the top three reasons that prevented parents from allowing their children to walk to school. The number one concern for parents was neighborhood safety issues.
As a result, the Healthy Schools team reached out to community partners to involve them in the program. One example was working with the Central Florida Epilepsy Foundation, which donated bicycle helmets to the students And the elementary school teachers received training in traffic and bicycle safety to better incorporated SRTS dynamics.
“The challenge in the program is that there were things done piecemeal, but nothing sustained,” Dr. Moody said of the schools’ past attempts at SRTS programs.
With the Healthy Schools team’s help, many activities and events were introduced to the two schools. Such activities included Walk to School Day, a bicycle rodeo and newsletters to parents with bicycle and pedestrian safety tips.
The schools also participated in Wednesday on Wheels, which was a wellness day that the Healthy Schools team encouraged all schools in the district to organize bicycle and pedestrian activities. There also were 10 educational classes in January about pedestrian and bicycle safety for the second and fourth grade.
The Healthy Schools team also wanted teachers to be creative in their own academic area to integrate pedestrian and bicycle safety tips into their teaching, such as centering art programs around bicycle and pedestrian programs.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the program at Wheatley and Ivey Lane, teachers conducted in-class hand tallies before the program began in the fall 2007 and again at the end of the school year. Based on pre- and post-evaluation, there was an 18 percent increase in students walking to school at Wheatley, and a 37 percent increase in students walking to Ivey Lane. The SRTS national tallies still are being counted.
Also, as part of ongoing childhood obesity studies sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and conducted by a local university, the students’ body mass index (BMI) was measured at Wheatley. The Team Nutrition Initiative plan to monitor the year-to-year change in the students’ BMI. Moody said the CDC has tracked the same students from kindergarten to third grade, and the majority of the students’ BMI increased, indicating the need for obesity prevention.
There are sidewalks around the two elementary schools, which makes it easier for students to walk or bicycle to school. A countywide mapping assessment was completed by Orlando’s traffic and engineering department, which addressed minor infrastructure improvements, such as signage and flashers. A pedestrian safety committee was formed to engage the health, transportation and neighborhood communities.
“It was really an interesting thing,” Dr. Moody said. “And the pedestrian safety committee was just happy because they were looking to get the community more involved.” Parents united with the pedestrian safety committee and participated in a letter-writing campaign to ask for the minor infrastructure improvements.
“If we can make campus walking pleasant, then everyone will be more proud of their neighborhood,” Dr. Moody said. “And, hopefully, it will increase community walking.”
For the fall 2008 school year, a new addition to the Team Nutrition Initiative will be a Team Nutrition Garden, further linking the importance of physical activity and safety with healthy eating habits.
“Our feeling is, of course, if you increase the messaging that’s positive in terms of walking, healthy eating and obesity prevention, we hope that light bulb comes on for the kids,” Dr. Moody said.
Also, the teachers at two other elementary schools in Orange County have completed the bicycle and traffic safety training and will begin their own Healthy School Team.
“We can do so much more,” Dr. Moody said of obesity prevention. “And this is the best way to begin, of course, in your own backyard.”
Dr. Toni Moody
Ivey Lane Elementary School