(Funded in part by a grant from the Lumpkin Family Foundation)
Several schools in Champaign County have adopted a nationwide anti-obesity initiative known as the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH).
Carrie Busey Elementary in Campaign began the CATCH initiative in 2009. CATCH schools get state money from the Illinois Department of Human Services over a three year period. That support, which gradually decreases over the three years, is used to revamp lunch menus, add new gym equipment, or expand nutrition education in the classroom.
Mariah Burt, who is a music teacher at Carrie Busey, has her class compose rap music related to health and wellness.
Fourth graders Peja Rowan, Ariany Smith, and Lily Smith stand in front of the class, performing original songs about nutrition. They use body and vocal percussion, such as stomping their feet and beatboxing: "I love you. You love apples. Remix... We eat fruit...You should too...We also eat vegetables with you...That's what you're supposed to do."
Burt said the songs about nutrition that come out of her classroom don't just stay in her class.
"Sometimes a kid will be sitting at lunch and see another kid bring a candy bar and say, 'Hey, remember the rap we did the other day, you're not supposed to be eating that whoa food. You're supposed to be eating the carrots of your platter because that's a 'Go food,"' Burt said. "So, it really has become a part of who they are through the musical setting."
In the school's cafeteria, there is a big poster outlining the three different food categories that the students learn about - 'Go foods' like fruits and vegetables are considered the most healthy; 'Slow foods' like yogurt and cheese should be eaten in moderation; and 'Whoa foods' like frosted cupcakes and candy are reserved strictly for special occasions.
To avoid an overabundance of 'Whoa foods,' gym teacher Wendy Starwalt rewards students with prizes if they eat plenty 'Go foods' during lunch. She also said the school has designated days once a month for birthday treats.
"It was hard for parents to understand why their child couldn't bring cupcakes on their birthday, and we had to help our kids understand why that was happening," Starwalt said. "So, now we're three years into that already, and a lot of teachers on the actual birthday have come up with celebrations that don't involve food."
Starwalt came to Carrie Busey a few years ago after teaching at Dr. Howard Elementary School in Champaign. That was the first school in Champaign County to test out the CATCH initiative. But after it ended, the school wasn't been able to sustain it. Starwalt said that is because only a few staff members were trained to teach a curriculum centered on health and wellness, and those teachers - like Starwalt - left the school. To avoid that from happening at Carrie Busey, all employees went through CATCH training.
Second grade teacher Elizabeth Well is in her second year of teaching the CATCH curriculum. A few times each year, she follows a prepared set of instructional course material that is designed for CATCH schools. During a recent classroom discussion, she talked about the importance of fiber.
"Fiber cleans the places in your body where food passes, and fiber is great because it makes the chances of getting some types of cancer go away, "Well said.
Well demonstrated how to make a high-fiber snack.
"Now this is rice and corn flakes," she said as she lift up a plastic bag full of Cheerios. "We know this is high fiber even though it doesn't say in big letters like on Raisin Brand that it's fiber because it is from wheat...and we learned fiber are things that are grown, but doesn't come from an animal."
As the class makes their snacks, a couple of the students demonstrated their knowledge about fiber.
"Well, it cleans your body and it also helps you to get healthier," David Cardaronella said.
"It lowers our chances of getting cancer," Zakyah Billings added.
When the bell rings, the kids head out, taking their bagged snacks. Well said after a year of teaching CATCH courses, she thinks more of her students are aware about what they are eating.
"Honestly, as an adult after teaching this for a year, I'm a little more aware and conscious of what I'm eating and looking at the labels and cereal boxes and things like that," she said. "So, it's even helped me as an adult."
After school is over, about 40 kids pack into the music room. Music teacher, Mariah Burt welcomes the group to the first day of Dance Club.
"Now you are all part of a healthy team and a healthy family that's going to help each other feel good about what we're doing and make sure that you help other people follow those directions," Burt said.
After going over the rules of Dance Club, Burt leads the class in some movements: "Five...six...seven...eight...stomp, stomp, clap, clap....one...two...three...four."
Out in the hallway right outside of the music room, a group of parents watch as 11-year-old Grace Rispoli teaches her peers the dance moves, mimicking what their teacher was just doing.
"Stomp, clap, clap, stomp, clap," Rispoli said. "Now, remember the thing is that even I forget the second stop. We have to remember that otherwise it won't look the same, and we can't clap first. We have to stomp first."
Nikiki Hillier, who is a program coordinator Program in the Division of Wellness and Health Promotion at the Champaign Urbana Public Health District, monitors the CATCH initiative in Champaign County. So far, five elementary schools in her area have taken part in CATCH: Carrie Busey, Dr. Howard, Unity West, Thomasboro, and Fisher.
While Hillier said the work to educate kids about nutrition may start at the schools, it shouldn't end there.
"You don't want to undermine everything that you've done all day at school by sending them home, and they're having fried foods and pop for dinner," Hillier said. "So, it's very important that the parents are on their journey with us."
After all, once these kids grow up, it will be up to them to teach the next generation about what it means to make healthy choices, one step at a time.