Eat Healthy, Stay Active! aims to improve health of Head Start children

Friday, September 13, 2013 | 12:27 p.m. CDT; updated 2:51 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 13, 2013

COLUMBIA — Central Missouri Community Action and MU medical students are teaming up on a new program that aims to educate Head Start children and their families about healthful living.

Beginning in the spring, staff members for the program, called Eat Healthy, Stay Active!, will train 3- to 5-year-old Columbia Head Start children and their families to become more healthy by eating better and increasing physical activity. 

Eat Healthy, Stay Active!, which was developed by the Health Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles and is found in several states, involves easy-to-read materials and takes a common-sense approach to teaching health and nutrition.

The Columbia program will operate similarly to UCLA's original structure, which is organized into three levels, each focused on a different group.

On one level, staff composed of Community Action Child and Family Development Advocates will be trained on the Eat Healthy, Stay Active! curriculum by Community Action nurses, physicians, nutritionists and dietitians.

On another level, Head Start children will be trained by staff members in classrooms and participate in a healthful activity every day. Proposed activities include learning how to plant a bucket garden and holding a child-focused farmers market.

On the final level, staff will train parents on subjects such as health literacy, counting calories, eating healthful foods on a budget, exercising at home, encouraging children to eat healthful foods and replacing unhealthful foods.

Parents and children will participate in parallel curricula, learning about the same topics at the same time.

Deviating from the UCLA structure, Community Action's program has added a level that educates MU medical students, who will also help train families. It is the first Eat Healthy, Stay Active! program to do so. The students will be trained on subjects including health and nutrition, health literacy, how to collect data properly and the culture of poverty. The first training session was held Aug. 28.

Coming to Columbia

Mernell King, early childhood programs director for Community Action, brought the idea for the Eat Healthy, Stay Active! program to Columbia. She has been actively involved with the program on a national level since it was developed at UCLA, and she directed a pilot program for the health care institute in 2001 in Hannibal. That program taught basic health literacy.

King and nine other people, including local physicians, nutritionists, dietitians and MU representatives, formed a coalition to start the Columbia program. The coalition now has 16 members.

One goal of the program is to prevent obesity in participating families. More than 38 percent of children in the Columbia Head Start program are considered obese or overweight, King said. 

Another aim is to educate families about health literacy.

People with low health literacy are often concerned about health care costs and unsure of how to find health insurance, and they might have a difficult time navigating health care, said Emily Milford, a second-year MU medical student and the program's medical student liaison to Community Action.

In some cases, those problems can cause them to avoid health care altogether, she said.

At the beginning of training, families and staff will undergo pre-assessments of health literacy and body mass index, or BMI, a measurement calculated from a person's height and weight. Assessments will continue throughout the program, with a post-assessment upon completion.

The goal is for all people involved, including staff, to see an overall improvement in their health, King said.

Much of the funding for Eat Healthy, Stay Active! will come from Community Action. Training will be done for free, and UCLA provided curriculum materials free of charge. Other items, such as prizes for activities, will be paid for or provided primarily by donations.

Medical students get involved 

Of 22 applicants, 12 first- and second-year MU medical students were chosen to participate in the first year of the program. 

Each student will work with five families and participate in activities with them, providing a community-based experience, Milford said. 

"It's a matter of educating future physicians to provide better patient-centered care," she said.

Milford, who joined the program as a member of its guiding coalition and now organizes participating medical students, sees the program as an invaluable experience for the medical students.

"Working with families and teaching people how to be healthy is a big part of being a physician," she said.

King and Milford hope the medical students will develop a better understanding of health literacy issues and their impact on health care from the patient perspective.

The initial run of Eat Healthy, Stay Active! will last 6 months, concluding in May with a small graduation ceremony. King said Community Action hopes the program will continue and grow.

Supervising editor is Margaux Henquinet.

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