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Reversing a Heartbreaking Trend

Low-income children learn to eat right

Daycare providers in low-income areas sometimes struggle to promote healthy lifestyles and offer nutritious food that appeals to children. Parents struggle, too, worrying about their children’s health and may have difficulty affording, or even finding, healthy food. Teachers and parents may be embarrassed about managing their own weight and feel powerless against the obesity epidemic that is prevalent in the community.

Welcome to daily life in daycare centers serving low-income families around the nation. And welcome to Jennifer Weber’s work. As the director of Healthy Way to Grow, an American Heart Association program inaugurated by McGowan funding, she and her staff are passionate about changing this entrenched and emotionally wrought dynamic.

Their concerns are well-founded. While less than 10 percent of U.S. 2–5 year olds are obese, they have plenty of time to gain weight—and they do. More than 30 percent of 2–19 year olds are overweight (exhibiting a Body Mass Index of 25–29.9) or obese (exhibiting a BMI of 30 and above). The prevalence is higher for low-income kids. Going forward in life, more than two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese. The fallout includes heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and more.

Understandably, daycare providers don’t know where to start.

Designed to provide direct, hands-on assistance and training to support healthy lifestyles in children, the HWTG program inevitably involves adults. “It’s interesting,” says Weber, “half the program is convincing adults.” This can be tricky. In fact, most of HWTG’s successful measures, including 90 percent adoption of best practices, focus on adults. “We talk to the teachers about their lives. They’ll say, ‘I can’t get on the floor to play with the kids.’ And they want to change, which builds a culture of health.” Similarly, in working with parents stressed by poverty and crushing schedules, the mantra is meet them where they are.

This means defining and redefining what will work. Food taste tests help, notes Weber, “you don’t want parents to waste money if the kids don’t like it.” Other educational tactics—cooking classes, shopping classes, and tips about labels—depend on the community, available food sources, and, of course, tastes and culture.

It’s an agile approach to a heartbreaking trend. Children are showing risk factors for heart disease at younger and younger ages, says Paul Kalil, AHA’s Senior VP Mission Advancement. “The fact is,” he adds, “most of us are born with a healthy heart.”