Combating childhood obesity

Students learn about plant leaves from chef Toni Tipton-Martin.
Students learn about plant leaves from chef Toni Tipton-Martin. Photo: Sherry Reddick

School officials at The University of Texas Elementary School are hoping that an after-school pilot program aimed at expanding students' diets to include nutritious foods will instill a desire to eat healthy and lower student obesity rates. The university's elementary school ranks high in the prevalence of overweight and obese children.

Since September, 20 students at the school have donned white chef aprons to learn basic cooking skills and introductory gardening through Garden to Table lessons, led by chef Toni Tipton-Martin. Garden to Table is one component of the WellNest program, which is an extension of the school's Healthy Families Initiative. The initiative promotes health and wellness by increasing students' physical activity levels and providing nutrition instruction.

Garden to Table is being piloted at the school through a community incubator partnership with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Tipton-Martin's goals for the program are aligned with First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign initiative called Chefs Move to Schools. Tipton-Martin was one of 800 invited chefs who attended the White House kick-off of Obama's initiative this summer.

"The kaleidoscope of student-led gardening, heritage and nutritious cooking activities nourish and empower families the way that Mrs. Obama's Let's Move campaign returns responsibility for the health of children to the community," Tipton-Martin said.

Besides preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, students also have the opportunity to garden in the school's already existing garden beds, use measuring skills to cook and visit a farm.

"We are so excited to incorporate Garden to Table into our Healthy Families Initiative and have Toni working with us," said Melissa Chavez, University of Texas Elementary School executive director. "Having our students learn life skills such as cooking, gardening and nutrition while improving literacy and math skills and their health is a win-win situation."

According to data taken over the last three years, the prevalence of being overweight and obese among students has gone from 63 percent down to 50 percent since introducing the Healthy Families Initiative. Now, school officials are adopting the same Response to Intervention three-tier model, that has been so successful in helping students make academic improvements in reading and math, and applying it to health, said Brian Dauenhauer, a physical education instructor at the school.

"The idea is that you layer support for students based on data," said Dauenhauer. "If you determine that a student is struggling in a particular area you don't just keep sending them through the same instruction and the same programming that's not working. You provide some kind of more intensive support for that student."

The WellNest program is an example of the more intensive support the school now offers. The program incorporates physical activity three days a week. Two days a week students work with the school's physical education instructor, and one day a week with coaches from Ignite a Dream, an Austin-based nonprofit that administers a team practice in either tennis or soccer.

School staff will continue to monitor the health of all students at the school, including those participating in WellNest, to determine the effectiveness of the Healthy Families Initiative. Program results could affect other schools and districts looking for effective models to lower student obesity rates.

"That's going to really be the next step," said Dauenhauer. "Based on all the data that we have we've shown that it works here, but now the question is, can it work in a regular public school that doesn't have the kind of resources and connections that The University of Texas Elementary School has?"