The relay race going on at Cranbury Elementary School’s After the Bell program looks like kids having fun. But at closer glance, we see kids getting some exercise and learning about nutrition at the same time.
“Where does this chicken drumstick go?” shouts a third grade boy as he dashes toward the end of the gym toward bags labeled, Fruits, Vegetables, Grains, Protein, Dairy. His teammates shout back in unison, “Protein.” He drops it in and the next child is off, running down the gym with a plastic cookie in hand toward the bag labeled “once in a while” foods.
These children are participating in Fit Kids, a program developed seven years ago by the Norwalk Health Department and the exercise science programs at Sacred Heart University and Norwalk Community College. The hour-long, 10-week program teaches elementary and middle school children about nutrition and physical activity through fun, interactive lessons, crafts and discussion based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate nutritional guidelines.
“We know that the earlier children are introduced to the importance of fitness and nutrition, the more likely it will be incorporated into their adult lifestyles,” says Theresa Argondezzi, Health Educator for the Norwalk Heath Department, a member of Norwalk ACTS.
Fit Kids is an example of how organizations with a shared agenda — promoting family health and wellness — can work together and achieve a significant collective impact. Pepperidge Farm, in partnership with United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, has donated $10,000 a year to the program allowing the Health Department to provide schools with training, supplies, and equipment so that school staff can run the program themselves, which is important to the funders and key to its sustainability, says Argondezzi.
Each year, the program builds on what the children learned the previous year. Elementary school students participate in taste tests to introduce them to new, exciting foods, whereas middle school students take the lead in cooking demonstrations, empowering them to cook for themselves and develop life skills.
The Health Department partners with Sacred Heart University students to assess the children’s nutritional knowledge before and after the program. According to Health Education Associate Kaitlin Latham, who coordinates the Fit Kids program and teaches all the nutrition lessons, not only sees improvement in the children’s’ knowledge base, but also notices a significant retention of information from year to year. In addition, parents receive a newsletter home each week so the child can share healthy habits with their families.
Fit Kids runs at 6 schools each school year, and the training program has already been implemented at Silvermine Elementary School, Columbus Magnet Elementary School, Fox Run Elementary School and Naramake Family Resource Center. Cranbury and Kendall Elementary schools are receiving training this semester — which totals half of all elementary schools in Norwalk. This summer, the program will again reach middle school children through Parks & Rec camps at Marvin and Cranbury Schools. The ultimate goal is to have every child in Norwalk learn how to be a Fit Kid.