A play day at Play Days held at the Wayne Community College Child Care Center. Staff facilitated the activities at these games and the children's families were encouraged to participate. Photo courtesy Wayne Community College Child Care.

Child care centers around the state are trying to stem the growing tide of obesity.

By Thomas Goldsmith

Alissa Merritt loves it when her 5 year old daughter Gracie toddles up to her with a piece of fruit or a vegetable to ask, “This is a healthy snack, right?”

Merritt attributes Gracie’s knowledge of healthy choices to Wayne Community College Child Care, where Gracie spends her days. Merritt recently told a crowd there how much she and Gracie enjoy the Goldsboro center’s approach, with its emphasis on healthy eating and outdoor exercise.

“They live it every day,” Merritt said.

Merritt was one of several speakers who gathered under a white tent to celebrate the center’s status as the seventh demonstration site for the nonprofit Shape NC. That means the center has been singled out and made an example for reaching a level of excellence and achieving best core practices in nutrition, physical activity and outdoor learning environments.

A play day at Play Days held at the Wayne Community College Child Care Center. Staff facilitated the activities at these games and the children’s families were encouraged to participate. Photo courtesy Wayne Community College Child Care.

Tempting toddlers

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina and the North Carolina Partnership for Children have joined forces in the $6 million Shape NC effort, now in its third year. Shape NC has the goal of raising the numbers of beginning North Carolina kindergartners who weigh in at a healthy level and are prepared to learn.

In day-to-day terms, that means centers have extensive play areas and additional exercise time, as well as lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to tempt toddlers’ palates.

As local and state officials mingled with parents, staff and children on a sunny May afternoon, the scene might at first glance have seemed like a feel-good exercise to support best practices in child care. However, in the long term, statewide health statistics and medical studies show, the stakes of the effort are seriously high.

Kids at the child care center participate in a “fruit lesson” to learn about healthy eating. Photo courtesy Wayne Community College Child Care.

“Obesity and diet-related disease cost our company millions of dollars a year,” Jennifer Zuckerman, director of strategic partnerships for the BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina Foundation, said after the event. “We have children as young as 2 who are already obese or overweight.”

Numbers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one of eight preschoolers nationally is obese. Among North Carolina children between 2 and 4 years old, about 30 percent are obese or overweight.

These conditions threaten children’s health as adults: Those who are obese by age 6 or overweight by 12 are more likely than not to turn into obese adults. Nearly a third of adult North Carolinians are obese, a report by the Trust for America’s health says.

Growing and producing

Child-care centers are a logical place to address this ongoing crisis, as more than a third of the state’s children spend most of their waking time at a regulated center. Allison Thomas, a Goldsboro nurse practitioner who works near the community college, says the center has been an ideal fit for daughter Lilly, 2.

“She’s a very active child, so this is right up her alley,” Allison Thomas said.

The center’s fenced yard contains a covered section designed as a lifesaver during blazing North Carolina summers. There’s also a garden to produce fresh fruits and vegetables that are a vital part of nurturing and educating children.

“We have learned the process of growing and producing some of our own snacks,” parent Phyllis Chesson said. “We have also been able to enhance our outdoor learning experience with a much needed shade structure.”

Children at the center help out in the garden and even get to harvest some of the vegetables. Photo courtesy Wayne Community College Child Care Center

It’s a solid strategy. Researchers have found that kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that they’ve grown themselves, or that they’ve seen grown in a schoolyard.

The center at Wayne Community College is one of seven Shape NC demonstration sites, described as “centers that provide on-site tours to see the nutrition, physical activity, and outdoor learning environments in action and learn about how these improvements were accomplished.”

In addition to the demonstration sites, Shape NC worked with centers in 27 North Carolina counties, involving 1,000 children. Some of the outcomes:

  • Children’s average body mass impact trended gradually lower during each of the first three years.
  • The percentage of children who tok part in physical activity for 90 minutes or more a day rose from 51 percent to 85 percent.
  • The percentage of children who were given fruit twice or more a day increased from 34 percent to 80 percent; given vegetables, from 32 percent to 60 percent; and given beans or lean meat, 9 percent to 60 percent.
  • Nineteen child-care centers added features such as bike paths and vegetable gardens.

Jessica Burroughs, project manager for Shape NC, says the program has had a ripple effect on parents and staff members who are exposed to its precepts. And Sherry Granberry, lead instructor for early child development at neighboring Wayne Community College, said students who train at the center often spread the principles of healthy eating and exercise when hired in new settings.

“They take what they have seen here back to the facilities where they work,” Granberry said.

Additional demonstration sites are in Orange, Randolph, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Alexander, and Buncombe counties.

To learn more:

[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...