COLUMBIA — Students from Grant and Lee elementary schools walked from school Tuesday morning to the YouZeum, where they were served a healthful breakfast made from local produce and delivered on bike.
Columbia's Health Environment Policy Initiative plans to curb childhood obesity by encouraging children to make healthy choices such as walking to school and eating healthfully.
The breakfast centered on the announcement of a $400,000 grant to the health policy group to fund efforts to make routine physical activity and health foods easily available to children. The grant is part of a $44 million initiative financed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop community-based solutions to childhood obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of all U.S. children are overweight or obese, putting them at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and other health problems and costing the country $117 billion annually in direct medical expenses and indirect costs.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation's largest philanthropy foundation devoted exclusively to health and health care.
"I think the issues in Missouri really mirror whats going on nationally. We've got a lot of communities that don't have places for people to walk or bike safely," said Amy Stringer Hessel, program officer for the Missouri Foundation for Health.
Hessel cited the amount of time children spend indoors on the computer or watching television and the tendency to eat fast food for convenience as primary factors leading to obesity.
Ian Thomas of the PedNet coalition, the grassroots nonprofit organization promoting non-motorized transportation in Columbia, will direct the project. Other partners in the grant include the city of Columbia, Columbia Public Schools and MU.
The school district's role in the initiative will be promoting a healthy environment for students and staff, said CPS Assistant Superintendent Jack Jensen.
"What we look forward to doing is working with this group to make sure our curriculum supports a healthy child. We want students to have the opportunity for physical activity and for good, healthy foods," Jensen said.
"We want to have healthy foods available to children in lunchrooms, so that you're not teaching them about being healthy and then they go to lunch and have a choice between chicken fingers and a cheeseburger," Hessel said.
Thomas said the initiative could attempt to enact policy changes such as limiting the number of fast-food restaurants in close proximity to schools and adjusting attendance areas to optimize students' ability to walk to school.
Underserved and minority children, in areas such as the First Ward, will be of particular focus in the initiative, according to documents from the health policy group.
Bill McKelvey, of the Columbia Garden Coalition, said building community gardens in low-income areas, where finding healthful foods can be especially difficult, could help to curb the obesity problem.
Columbia is one of nine communities labeled as "leading sites" to receive grants, with approximately 60 additional communities to receive grants within the next year.
Columbia was chosen because of the city's work in past projects such as Active Living by Design and Healthy Eating by Design, Thomas said. These projects developed programs such as the Walking School Bus, where trained volunteers help students walk to school on a daily basis. The goal is to have Columbia serve as a mentor and model for future communities attempting to combat obesity.
"One possibility is these nine communities will be assigned five or six future communities to share experiences and strategies with to try to maximize the project," Thomas said. "We don't want other communities working on a strategy that is unsuccessful."