By NICOLE GUGINO
OBSERVER Assistant News Editor
In the past when the health department has tried to increase physical activity and healthy eating habits, it has held exercise programs and culinary workshops. However, the grant recently received by the Chautauqua County Health and Human Services Department aims to change the environment and culture behind factors leading to obesity and chronic disease.
"The reason we are not - and that has been a trend with health for a while now - is that it is not sustainable. We could spend all this money to do pedometer-based walking programs and some 'have fun with healthy foods' kind of thing but when we are gone those things are all gone, where these things are really trying to change the environment and the culture," Community Coordinator Lisa Schmidtfrerick-Miller said. "We are trying to provide kids opportunities to try (nutritious food and walking to school) and for those things to go on after this grant."
The Community Transformation Grant was issued by the Centers for Disease and will provide approximately $450,000 over two years.
"Our county is pretty unhealthy. We have 30 percent of children who are overweight or obese in our public schools and that number has tripled over the past three decades. Sixty-two percent of adults are overweight or obese and are at risk for chronic disease, 12 percent have been diagnosed with diabetes and 26 percent are current smokers. With all that kind of data together that paints a grim picture for chronic disease for our county in the future. The purpose of this grant is to prevent the risk factors that result in chronic disease for children before they are really at risk," Project Coordinator Breeanne Agett said. "The reason our county was chosen was partially because of those grim health statistics but also because of our proven success in the past with our Steps to a Healthier New York grant."
The grant will focus on youths age birth to 18 in the Dunkirk, Silver Creek and Jamestown areas.
"The state chose what we would be working on and also identified specific parts of the county to focus on for the grant. Those that were chosen were Jamestown, Dunkirk and Silver Creek. Those school districts were chosen because of high minority population, low socioeconomic status and poor risk factors like obesity, smoking and all kinds of things," Agett added.
The three areas the program will focus on in all age groups are access to nutritious food, increased physical activity and reducing exposure to tobacco.
Early child care
Another unique feature of this program is its focus on very young children.
"The concept is to get to children as soon as possible. That is why we are starting in the early child care sector. In the past, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the schools and getting better nutrition and physical activity in schools, but studies show that is good at halting obesity in those young kids, but not at reversing the impacts and not losing the weight," Agett said.
The CTG program will work with Chautauqua Opportunities and the Chautauqua Child Care Council to help increase day care centers' participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Schmidtfrerick-Miller said this program is a "sister to the school lunch program" which uses the same USDA guidelines and provides reimbursement for providers.
The CTG program will also be working with a physical activity specialist to help train day care personnel on age-appropriate physical activities.
"Ultimately, it's designing fun activities for kids that are working on skills like throwing a ball or running, while increasing their heart rate, getting them up and moving, and getting exercise in a way that is also building skills for when they go to school, they are more physically fit to respond well in phys ed and school in general," Agett explained.
She said the idea is to design the activities so that inexpensive equipment like hula hoops and laundry baskets can be used, making it easy for day care centers to sustain.
Keeping with the same idea as working in the early child care sector, the CTG program will focus mainly on elementary school children.
"The objectives are very similar (to the early childhood objectives). They want to get more physical activity into the day-to-day elementary school classrooms. So for example, kids are doing a lot more sitting because of the new testing requirements, trying to squeeze so much more academic time into those days but what we are seeing is kids really do better if they get up and moving throughout the day," Schmidtfrerick-Miller said.
She said teachers can do "brain breaks" of physical activity or integrate exercise into a lesson.
At the school level the CTG program will also focus on safe routes to school.
Schmidtfrerick-Miller said the aim is to "make this more than a program but also a priority" to make the routes safer for those already walking to school and also encourage more kids to walk to school.
She added walking or biking to school is a great way for kids to reach the total 60 minutes of exercise recommended per day.
"As the levels of walking and biking to school has gone down, obesity rates have gone up. It is for a lot of different reasons but that is just one of the factors that plays into it. I'm trying to reverse that trend," she said.
As for nutrition, the CTG program has been asked by the state to start regional school menu planning and buying after success in Broome County. Schmidtfrerick-Miller said this can help schools save money, purchase more nutritious food at a lower price and purchase more locally-grown food.
The third part of the program is to encourage schools to prohibit smoking at off-campus school-sponsored events like dances or sports games.
"It's so that kids aren't exposed to second-hand smoke and kids aren't exposed to adults smoking because when kids see adults smoking it tends to normalize that behavior and they think it is okay and it's not," Schmidtfrerick-Miller said.
In the Community
The CTG program is also targeting communities in order to further the initiatives in the early child care and school level initiatives.
In conjunction with safe routes to school, the CTG program will be asking communities to adopt "complete streets" policies.
Schmidtfrerick-Miller said this is a planning and design principle which commits to considering all users including pedestrians and bicyclists when doing road work.
"It is making it safe, comfortable and convenient for all users," she said.
Jamestown has already adopted a complete streets policy.
The CTG program also seeks to give the community more health options, whether at a vending machine or when choosing where to live.
Schmidtfrerick-Miller said the program will address sugary beverages start with the county itself.
She said they will also work with schools and other organizations to see if they can get better, unsweetened options; like water, flavored water and unsweetened iced tea. They will also be reaching out to sports leagues to try to offer water over Gatorade.
"Sugary drinks make up nearly 13 percent of 12 to 19 year olds' diets," Agett said.
She said the Health Department has a 15-minute power point presentation on why sugary drinks are unhealthy free to any group who would like to see it.
The CTG program is also trying to create more smoke-free multi-unit housing options. Currently, the Coburn block apartments in Dunkirk are the only smoke-free, public low-income apartments in the county.
"We are not addressing smoking, it's not about people smoking, it's about people being exposed to second-hand smoke in particular where there are families," Schmidtfrerick-Miller said.
They will work with Dunkirk Housing Authority and Chautauqua Opportunities to try to reach the goal of 85 smoke-free, public low-income properties.
"The whole program may seem segmented but the whole idea is to create an environment in our communities with more healthier lifestyles and more healthier behaviors and by doing that then decreasing the risk factors," Schmidtfrerick-Miller explained.