Dr. Karla Lester had been practicing medicine for seven years when she realized she needed to make a change.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like her work; in fact, the Lincoln, Neb. pediatrician was more motivated than ever to improve the health of her young patients. It was that she didn’t think the occasional visit with them was enough.
So many were coming to her showing the negative effects of childhood obesity, and the typical check-up just wasn’t going to help them. Her patients needed continued, regular treatment to get healthy, but Lester had few resources she could provide beyond telling them to eat better and lose weight.
That’s when Lester decided to act. She left her practice and formed "Teach a Kid to Fish," a public health collaborative initiative that works to bring various stakeholders together — doctors, patients, schools, government officials and community leaders — to find ways to provide support and tackle the childhood obesity epidemic in Lincoln.
Lester jokes that the idea behind the initiative isn’t to actually teach any kids to fish — something Lester actually gets asked about a lot, she tells The Inside Track — but rather work to give kids the resources needed to help them live a long and healthy life. It’s something doctors don’t always know how to do, Lester says.
"There’s a lot of barriers in a primary care setting, and one of those is that your patients have a lot of barriers," Lester explains. "You don’t have a lot of time to address this issue… we weren’t educated in residency. This is a new thing. Obesity is a chronic disease."
A nonprofit group, Teach a Kid to Fish looks for ways to close gaps in the community that prevent kids from getting the resources needed to combat obesity, both to prevent them from putting on excess weight, and help them lose it if they’ve already done so. The nonprofit oversees several working groups that target specific areas, including health care providers, school systems, government policies, businesses and faith-based and community organizations. These working groups then develop strategic plans and action steps designed to improve the local community.
Since founding the group in 2008, Lester has worked on a number of initiatives, including helping the Nebraska Medical Association come up with healthy weight toolkits for young people and lobbying for state legislation supporting breastfeeding. She’s currently working to develop an integrated model between health care providers and schools to figure out the most effective ways the two can help kids, a project that is being funded by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Teach a Kid to Fish also promotes the 54321 Go! program, which encourages young people to eat five servings of produce, drink four glasses of water, eat three servings of low fat dairy, take part in 2 hours or less of screen time and exercise for one hour each day. The nonprofit recently started a youth working group that will serve as 54321 Go! ambassadors throughout the community, taking its message to schools, health fairs, worksites and child-care centers, Lester says.
It’s all part of the overall mission of Teach a Kid to Fish: to be a grassroots organization whose roots lay in the community. It’s not just about Lester lecturing folks; it’s about the community really coming together to make it easier for kids to lead healthy lives.
Lester says sometimes she’ll talk to local groups about childhood obesity, and they’ll ask her if she’s familiar with Teach a Kid to Fish. "That to me is the biggest compliment," Lester says.