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Leaps, Bounds, and Lots of Celery

A heart-healthy program becomes a growing movement

You might say Pam Hoffman threw herself into teaching healthy living to her 3–5 year olds at the Back Mountain Day Care center in Shavertown, Pennsylvania. One day, the kids made ants on a log (celery, peanut butter, and raisins); another day, they danced; for a while, they experimented with red foods (the beets didn’t sell, but the apples did). Then one day, Hoffman realized that she was losing weight. “I thought, this might actually work!” she laughs.

What was working was Healthy Way to Grow (HWTG), a multiyear heart health program that aims to change the eating habits and activity levels of very young low-income children. Shavertown is in Luzerne County, where the poverty rate is 15.8 percent and the adult diabetes rate is almost one in 10.

Coordinated by the American Heart Association, HWTG is wracking up impressive results in all six of the McGowan Fund’s regions. In its first two years, the program reached 897 early childhood classrooms, many of which began offering nutrition lessons three or more times a week to 15,000 children.

The crisis at hand is childhood obesity. Nationwide, 8.9 percent of kids 2–5 years old are obese. (In Pennsylvania, the number is 12.2 percent—more than one in 10—for lowincome kids 2–4 years old.) The trend grows as the children grow; with entrenched habits and problems accessing nutritious food, 17.5 percent of children ages 6–11, are obese; by adulthood more than one-third of Americans are obese. The health risks are significant, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Meanwhile, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, obesity and overweight also affect the economy, the nation’s productivity, and even national defense (30 percent of young people are too heavy to qualify for military service).

The philosophy behind HWTG is basically get ’em while they’re young, but that’s not the whole picture. As Nancy Herman, the project coordinator in Pennsylvania, explains, HWTG also reaches out to parents and teachers with information, shopping and cooking tips, and teaching strategies.

This approach ensures sustainability by building capacity in the community. “A whole group has been trained, and they’ll build community connections,” notes Jennifer Weber, the program’s national director. “There’s already a garden in Kansas City, for instance, and our online resources will go on even after the centers graduate.”

Probably the best example of capacity building is in Aurora, Colorado, where the public school system signed on with 30 early childhood centers in 2015–16, the first-ever school system to join HTWG. Aurora has a poverty rate of 14.3 percent; most of the restaurants serve fast food.

Bringing the public schools into the fold involved six months of preparation. There was some hesitation. “But I found it’s all in the delivery,” recalls Chloe Sundberg, the project coordinator for the region. “A lot of the sites have been used to programs coming in and doing short and intense stints. Staff don’t like that. It throws them for a loop,” she says. Sundberg demonstrated that teachers didn’t have to stray far from established curriculum, “It doesn’t have to be a formal lesson plan—think of all the books you read.