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Project Grow gives kids skinny on food, exercise

posted Aug 7, 2009, 11:53 AM by David Goboff
Ronni Gerstel was part of a team this summer to help kids create Public Service Announcements about Good Nutrition.
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Project Grow gives kids skinny on food, exercise

Daily News Arts Editor

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Daily News Photo by Jeffrey Langlois
Lourdes Janaque, 8, and other Project Grow students use an overhead projector at Lantana Elementary School to illustrate how many calories are in an order of chicken nuggets from McDonalds.

The star of the show was a child's drawing of a plate of chicken nuggets beamed by an old-fashioned overhead projector onto a movie screen.

"This is an order of chicken nuggets," intoned one of a group of youngsters ringing the projector, as another child steered a plastic silhouette of a chicken over the plate.

"This is what is in chicken nuggets," the narrator continued. Up popped a list of ingredients: chicken, water, salt, wheat flour, sugar, sodium phosphate, high fructose corn syrup and so on.

And the calorie count: 350.

The kids were rehearsing a public service announcement about good nutrition for a showcase for parents and friends held at the conclusion of summer camp recently at Lantana Elementary School.

They were among 150 third- to fifth-grade summer campers participating in Project Grow, a pilot project that uses nontraditional means to teach healthy diet and exercise habits to children in low-income neighborhoods. The program began at after-school sites last spring and was held at four camps this summer. It will continue at after-school sites in the fall.

Nearly a third of Florida children are overweight, according to statistics from The Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida, an affiliate of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida. Overweight children are more at risk of developing a host of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, low self-esteem and stigmatization. They often grow into obese adults.

Project Grow is a collaborative effort spearheaded by Prime Time Palm Beach County, the Center for Creative Education in West Palm Beach and the DeVos-Blum Family YMCA in Boynton Beach with funding from The Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida and the Quantum Foundation.

"Our goal isn't to have kids come into this program and lose 20 pounds," said Suzette Harvey, executive director of Prime Time Palm Beach County, a nonprofit facilitator of after-school programs. "It's about changing how they feel about physical fitness and nutrition. It's about a mindset. If you don't change your mind, you don't change your behavior."

During the six-week summer camp, children received an hour of instruction three times a week. The classes were led by Stacey Lazos, a visual artist and yoga instructor; Trisha Halverson, a visual artist; and Ronni Gerstel, a visual artist and puppeteer. All have years of experience using the arts to teach other subjects for the Center for Creative Education.

At Lantana Elementary, campers experienced where healthy food comes from by growing vegetables in pots. They learned about plant parts and reproduction by making plant reliefs with clay and paper plates. They tasted healthy foods that might be unfamiliar to them and helped prepare a meal to which their parents were invited.

"Fruits and vegetables are good for you, because they're healthy," said Lourdes Janaque, 8, of Lantana. But she wouldn't recommend everything she's tasted. "I don't think you should eat a cherry pepper," she said. "It's very spicy."

Campers also learned to govern their emotions by writing in journals and practicing relaxation and mindfulness techniques. They burned off calories by participating in noncompetitive games.

Schools teach some of this material, but because they're increasingly focused on bettering academic achievement, they have less time for lifestyle education, said Diana Sinisterra, Prime Time's director of evaluation and research.

Sites were selected based on interest and their ability to fulfill the program's requirements, such as attending preparatory staff training workshops, said Tom Pilecki, executive director of the Center for Creative Education. It's hoped that after participating in the program, sites will be able to continue it on their own.

Denise Sasiain, director of Lantana Elementary's after-school programs, would recommend Project Grow to all her colleagues.

"We have experienced staff, but to do a program like this is not within their experience," she said. "To have the center's artists including them and modeling their methods will bump up what our counselors can do."

By the time the project concludes in fall 2010, its creators hope to develop a program they can export to after-school sites and summer camps across the state, Pilecki said.