A unique program in Philadelphia is helping local kids learn how to “eat right, get fit and stay well,” while providing much-needed data on how comprehensive wellness programs can benefit child health.
Fifty percent of children in Philadelphia ages 6 to 12 are overweight or obese. To combat that statistic, the Independence Blue Cross (IBC) Foundation launched the Healthy Futures initiative, a three-pronged wellness program focused on nutrition (Eat Right), fitness (Get Fit) and preventive health (Stay Well).
Healthy Futures is a three-year, school-based initiative that teaches children how and why to lead healthier lives. Working with local and nationally known partners and 25 elementary schools in southeast Pennsylvania, the program ultimately reaches thousands of children.
“We know that we can’t tackle this problem alone―with Healthy Futures, our biggest strength is our partnerships. We work to harness the power of partnerships and to find the ‘best of best’ in our area who go into the schools and inspire the kids,” explains Maureen Furletti, Senior Analyst at Independence Blue Cross Foundation and program manager of Healthy Futures.
For the “Eat Right” portion of their program, Healthy Futures partners with chef Marc Vetri’s Foundation. Marc is helping revamp how lunch is served: moving from traditional cafeterias to family-style dining at round tables, where students pass food around the table to each other for a more “communal” experience. They also partner with Iron Chef Jose Garces and his foundation, the Garces Foundation, to take kids to his family farm so that they can learn first-hand about growing fruits and vegetables.
Maureen says that the kids love the hands-on experience, and the staff are inspired by watching the kids learn: “It’s awesome to see the kids’ expressions as they’re learning. You ask them ‘what do you like about the farm?’ And their answer is ‘everything!’ And when they say they’re surprised that healthy foods taste so good―that’s huge and something you can’t quantify. You won’t see that on a BMI, but their attitude has changed and that’s so important.”
The “Get Fit” part of their program invites local sports teams and athletes to visit schools and get the kids excited about physical activity. One partner is the Philadelphia Union, the city’s professional soccer team, who brings a pop-up soccer field to schools that don’t have the space for a real one.
“Stay Well” is spearheaded by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where a nurse visits the core schools to teach a health class or perform school nursing duties like eye exams or immune screenings—a much-needed service for schools that might have had to cut nursing positions due to budget constraints. In addition, the team tracks wellness measures required by the state such as immunization records and other measures like weight and BMI.
The entire program is also structured to be a research study in childhood obesity prevention and nutrition: For the three-year span of the program, Healthy Futures will track data for a group of students that started in the fourth grade—targeting about 1,000 out of 8,000 elementary school students. Those students are in the fifth grade now.
The research project is truly a group effort. Drexel University is working with Healthy Futures to obtain data from the students including BMI and waist circumference. Researchers at the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University will conduct focus groups with the students to assess the students’ views of health.
Any wide-scale program comes with wide-scale challenges. For Healthy Futures, it started with finding schools that would agree to participate. Some principals were on board, but didn’t have the required facilities (for example, a kitchen suitable for preparing food for the “Eat Right” portion of the program).
Then, there was the process of setting up the study itself: approval from school boards, an Internal Review Board at Drexel to make sure all the protocols were in place to protect the children and correctly conduct the research.
It was worth it, Maureen says, “Not only to have a wellness program that really helps the children, but to also to add to the science of obesity prevention and nutrition.”
At the conclusion of the program, the IBC Foundation plans to share their findings, in hopes that the research will provide support for expanding the program to other cities.
To learn more about the program, visit their website.