Seventy-five members from the all-female non-profit organization The Junior League of Rhode Island, Inc. gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Friday for a statewide forum, Weighing In on Childhood Obesity.
They reported that more than one-third of children in the country are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, as obesity is a national epidemic that increases risk for type II diabetes, asthma, heart disease and other health problems, and provided one another with proper ingredients to keep children healthy.
“We hope that through our discussions we will compel and inspire you to be catalysts for lasting change,” President Petra Jenkins said.
The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc. (AJLI) initiated Kids in the Kitchen, a program inspired by the Junior League of Calgary, and adopted it as a national program about five years ago. It educates parents and their children to learn how to shop for wholesome foods, prepare nutritious meals, as well as incorporate fun physical activities such as family walking and jogging sessions into daily life. The league publishes a cookbook, “In the Kitchen with Kids,” which is filled with simple recipes that children can prepare. Copies can be ordered via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 401-331-9302 between the hours of 9a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Anne Dalton, chief officer for strategic initiatives of AJLI, served as moderator and asked four panelists questions about how to better the nation’s youth.
Panelists included Elizabeth Lange, M.D., pediatrician of Waterman Pediatrics/Coastal Medical, Inc.; Eliza Lawson, program manager of the Initiative for a Healthy Weight, RI Department of Health; Frank Terranova, master chef and associate instructor of Johnson & Wales University, as well as the host of “Cooking with Class” on NBC’s Turn to 10; and Dorothy Brayley, executive director of Kids First.
When Dalton inquired about what they see as the biggest factors that lead to childhood obesity, Lange said the poor economy is a big one, as inexpensive foods are typically the least healthy.
“I encourage people to visit food pantries and teach their kids to eat new foods,” she said. “Let them go to the produce area in the market and let them see what looks good without putting a name to it and saying, ‘this is a vegetable.’”
Lange also said people are busy with jobs and other responsibilities that don’t allow them much time to shop and cook nutritious meals. Despite the economy, she said people eat at restaurants two or three times a week, which is problematic because caloric density and salt intake are high and portion sizes are large.
“It’s a matter of encouraging kids to go to a restaurant and eat half of their meal and bring the rest of it home,” said Lange.
Further, she said exercise is also vital. It’s not only an issue of what they are eating; it’s a matter of physical activity.
“There are studies that show that if children do 15 jumping jacks before a test, they do better,” said Lange. “If their bellies are full of good food it’s going to help their brains do well.”
Lawson agreed with Lange and said it’s unfortunate that unhealthy options have become the norm. She also said children don’t partake in routine physical activity the way they used to, as previous generations walked to and from school, while children of today get rides.
Moreover, she said the virtual world has replaced outdoor activities like tag and other physical games. Crime and traffic also deter them from playing outside.
“Some kids are living in neighborhoods that aren’t safe and are spending more and more time indoors,” said Lawson. “There’s less and less time for kids to run around and just be kids.”
Terranova and Brayley also agreed and expounded on their points. As an instructor at a culinary college, Terranova said he often witnesses students eating inexpensive and unhealthy food.
“I don’t know how many kids I see on an everyday basis that live on Ramen noodles three times a day, seven days a week for four years,” he said.
Additionally, Brayley said the United States has become a society that asks children what they want to eat, making it impossible to serve healthy food. At 2 years old, children have a vocabulary of food that consists of “chicken nuggets and French fries” because those are the choices that have been marketed to them.
“That’s all they know,” she said. “Stop asking and start giving different options.”
With that, Dalton asked them to stay on point and asked how culture and their unique environments impact what children eat. She also asked how the panelists would change and improve the situation.
Brayley reminded the members of the assembly that parents have the power to educate and control what their children eat, but not always at school.
“We raised a generation of children, and maybe more than one generation that learned bad habits in the environment they were learning or being cared for,” she said. “Adults are in charge and it’s an amazing opportunity to teach healthy eating.”
Terranova, Lange and Lawson elaborated and said sometimes schools have wonderful food programs but parents derail healthy eating at home. They stressed that it needs to be a team effort and parents should reinforce nutritious behavior, as well.
“Education starts in the home,” Terranova said.
Next, Dalton asked what else parents and caregivers should do to promote healthy behaviors and how communities can help out, too.
Lange said it’s important to remember that snacks can be culprits for weight gain. She advised them to cut down on feeding children munchies to occupy them during car rides or as rewards for good behavior.
“Kids can experience life without having something in their hands all the time,” she said.
Terranova feels the same. He said, “years ago the television used to be the babysitter; now it’s the snack bag.”
While he suggested getting them in the kitchen to learn more about nutritious cooking, Brayley and Lawson advised parents and educators to take children on trips to farms and grocery stores. They said it’s best to be positive role models for children because if parents don’t eat well, their children won’t either.
Lawson, who has a 4-year-old son, said while she knows it’s not always easy, it’s necessary, as he caught her with her hand in his trick-or-treat bag.
“He gave me a five-minute lecture about how I’m not supposed to eat candy before dinner,” she said. “Parents have to understand that if they’re drinking soda at the dinner table and say their children can’t, it’s a difficult message for a child. Remain confident that you’re doing the right thing.”
The AJLI, a non-profit, all-female volunteer organization, was founded in 1905, while the JLRI was established in 1921. During the last 90 years, more than 200 Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts volunteer members have contributed more than 1 million hours of community service and more than $22 million in benefiting non-profit organizations within the state to improve communities. Their website is: www.jlri.org.
They have more than 255 nonprofit community service partner organizations statewide, including the Ronald McDonald House; American Cancer Society; Crossroads Rhode Island; Rhode Island Hospital/Hasbro Children’s Hospital; Dorcas Place; Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island; American Red Cross; Family Service of Rhode Island; The Tomorrow Fund; St. Mary’s Home for Children; Amos House; Meeting Street; Save the Bay; The Autism Project; Women’s Center of Rhode Island; Safe Kids USA; Sojourner House; and Rhode Island Food Bank, and are sponsored by United Health Care Community Plan; Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island; and Fidelity Investments.
To celebrate their 90th anniversary, they are hosting various events including Holiday Marketplace at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket on Dec. 10; The Touch-A-Truck Children’s Event at Garden City Center in Cranston on April 21; and the Service and City Ball at Hope Club in Providence on May 5.