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Children's Health

Fun with Food: Schools Use Play to Promote Healthy Habits

North Carolina educators bring a play to schools to teach kids about healthy food and exercise.

By Kelsey Tsipis

What does an auditorium full of dancing kids have to do with reducing obesity?

Everything, according to an award-winning traveling theater group that encourages kids to eat healthier food and get more exercise.

A recent performance by FoodPlay, a touring theater company got the kids from Penny Road Elementary School in Cary up and dancing for more than 45 minutes, even as the children learned to avoid foods high in sugar and salt.

Cassie Hack, a representative the school’s Parent Teacher Association, brought the show to Penny Road this November as a part of the PTA’s cultural arts program.

“We used to have a nutrition class but over the years with budget cuts things have gone by the wayside,” said Hack. “So when I heard about this performance, I thought it could be a fun performance for the kids to watch and learn something about health and nutrition.”

After Penny Road Elementary the troupe then extended it’s tour of North Carolina to three other schools — Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh, Sandhills Farm Life Elementary in Carthage and Laurel Park Elementary in Apex.

Too much sugar, too little exercise

The American Heart Association found last year about 1 in 3 children in the US ages 2–19 are overweight and obese. Children are drinking on average over 600 cans of soda and consuming more than 150 pounds of sugars a year, missing out on recommended levels of fruits, vegetables and whole grains needed for optimal health.

Those numbers are similar in North Carolina. In an annual report card issued by Action for Children North Carolina fewer than a third of children under 17 years old get the recommended hour of exercise each day, and about a third of the state’s kids are overweight or obese. North Carolina ranks number 11 in the country for the rate of out-of-shape kids.

Students at Penny Road Elementary School dance during FoodPlay

Students at Penny Road Elementary School dance during FoodPlay. Photo credit, Kelsey Tsipis

“It’s a hard message to get through to kids,” said Hack, whose children are 2nd and 5th graders at Penny Road Elementary School. “They’re starting to get to that age where they’re interested in things like soda. My 9-year-old all of a sudden asked for a Roo cup over the summer and we’ve never had soda. So I thought this would illustrate it in a fun way.”

During the upbeat performance, children follow the antic of Janey Junkfood, whose dream is to become a national juggling star, but keeps dropping the balls. The problem is her poor eating habits. With the help of her coach, Janey learns how to juggle the foods she eats to wind up with a balanced diet.

FoodPlay introduced USDA’s new MyPlate food guide to young students, helping children learn to fill half their plates with a rainbow of colors from fruits and vegetables, choose “go” foods over “no” foods for more energy and cut down on soda and sweetened drinks. Janey’s coach also shows her how to see through TV commercials starring her favorite celebrities advertise fast food or sugary “sports” drinks.

“We have to fight fire with fire,” says FoodPlay creator and Executive Director, Barbara Storper, MS, RD. “We need to use the same techniques advertisers use in order to get kids excited about health food and health practices. And schools are the perfect setting to model health behaviors and educate students on how to make their choices health ones.”

Janey’s colorful character and the motivating messages kept a gym-full of kindergarteners to 5th graders at Penny Road engaged and jumping around to Justin Bieber songs for 45 minutes.

“My favorite part was the energy that both the actors brought to the play and how they jumped around and how we got to move as well,” said James Clary, a 5th grader at Penny Road.

James Clary, 10, and Tom Nixon, 10 are 5th graders at Penny Road Elementary School.

James Clary, 10, and Tom Nixon, 10, are 5th graders at Penny Road Elementary School. Photo credit, Kelsey Tsipis.

“I was surprised at how much sugar the soda had,” said Clary. “That was very interesting. I don’t drink a lot of soda but I do occasionally. I also didn’t know that pies, like from McDonalds, don’t have a lot of fruit. They have a lot of sugar and sodium.” ”

Students at Penny Road were also asked to make suggestions about how to make their school healthier after the play.

“Our lunches are pretty healthy but they could offer a little more fruits and vegetables,” said Tom Nixon, also a 5th grader.

FoodPlay Productions was founded in 1982 by Storper under original sponsorship by the US Department of Agriculture. They have reached over 4,000,000 children from New York to Alaska, and received a host of awards including an Emmy Award after doing a television special.

“I love seeing the reactions from the kids and seeing what they take away from it,” said Travis Gawron, the stage manager of the show. “We love to entertain but our mission is to make a statement about childhood obesity and how much of a problem it is in our country these day.”

Cover photo, Kelsey Tsipis

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