Children's Voice July/August 2009

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Spotlight On

Fixing the Food

The Home for Little Wanderers Gets Healthier

Cooking a thoroughly healthy, delicious meal for a family on a budget can require a lot of planning and even more time. Just imagine if that family included hundreds, and the dinner tables were in three separate locations across the state.

The Home for Little Wanderers, a CWLA member agency with residential, community-based, and prevention programs across Massachusetts, has been piloting a program to "fix the food." With up to 187,045 meals served to children in 13 programs each year, staff at The Home recognized what a large impact they could have on improving the eating habits of the children in their care.

"We've been dealing with this issue here at The Home for the last eight years," Medical Director Philip Hernandez says. Their population is mostly teenage boys, many of whom have been prescribed psychiatric medications, which often include weight gain as a side effect. "It turned out that our kids had a higher rate of being overweight and obese than kids in the general population," Hernandez continues, saying about half the boys were either overweight or obese.

The Home's nutrition initiative aims to change that. "We've been rolling out a centralized menu with all of our programs," Mary Barber, Nutrition Coordinator, explains. "The menu has been really well received by the kids." She details some specifics, such as replacing sugary cereals with whole-grain cereals and an optional sugar packet, exchanging white rice for brown rice, and pushing for more vegetables as pizza toppings.

Getting the children at The Home to eat better has been just the first step. It's also necessary to offer exercise opportunities, model responsible nutrition, and educate not just the children but the families they go home to as well. The Home has made what Hernandez calls a "complete commitment." On an agency level, this means thinking beyond the mission statement, which currently includes a focus on "healthy emotional, mental, and social development" for the children they serve. With the nutrition initiative, staff at The Home have unofficially added healthy physical development to their mission.

On an individual level, this has translated into education for more than just the youth in care. Staff have gone through a series of trainings to explore why-and how-to live healthier. With on-site cooking demonstrations and prizes for attendance, seminars engaged participants in varied roles at the agency. Everything about the nutrition initiative has been a multidisciplinary approach, Hernandez explains. Everyone has to be involved: not just the staff who work primarily with the youth, but also the chefs who prepare and purchase the food, the doctors who examine and prescribe medication for the children, the development officers who find grants for more health-conscious programs, and others.

The "train the trainer" events were pilots to test lessons and materials for the youth and their families, but they had another objective: changing the behavior of staff. Barber and Hernandez say there's been a conscious effort to encourage staff to practice what they preach by making healthy nutrition choices for themselves. Staff buildings have bulletin boards about nutrition and exercise, Hernandez says, and it's had an effect: "More staff are trying to get on the [better health] bandwagon personally."

But to really create change in their boys' health, The Home has had to reach past its campus boundaries. The local YMCA and some junior sports leagues allow youth at The Home to join for free or at greatly reduced fees; Hernandez thinks other residential programs could benefit from similar arrangements, even reaching out to local gyms. They've also set up youth in programs in the communities to which they will return.

Addressing the unique needs of some children who face obesity, diabetes, or other health issues within the centralized menu set-up has been challenging, Barber says. Working with a dietician has helped, but implementing the recommendation of a specialized diet poses more questions. Especially during adolescence, when children are trying to fit in, there's a tension between having the lunch that's best for them and having the same lunch everyone else is having. "Would we actually have a kid eat different food than his or her peers?" Barber wonders. She expects they will find an approach that builds off of their youths' familiarity with allergies, where some of their peers cannot eat some foods. "They'll be able to hopefully accept the idea that they'll be eating different things at different times."

There are still questions to answer as the nutrition initiative continues, but it's already showing progress. Hernandez remembers a visit to one of The Home's programs, where fish sandwiches were being served. Youth and chefs had worked together to make their own healthier tartar sauce. Not only that, but as Hernandez filled his plate, a boy asked him whether he wanted a regular or whole-wheat bun. It was a little sign of success, Hernandez says: "In his mind he now knows that whole wheat is a healthier option."

Community in Motion

San Bernardino County's Department of Children and Family Services, a CWLA member, hosted its third annual Foster and Kinship Youth Sports Faire, "Youth, Fitness & Community in Motion" in June. More than 400 foster youth ages 11 to 18 participated in one of the five sports clinics offered: football, basketball, baseball/softball, soccer, and cheerleading/dance. Professional athletes, like Olympic sprinting gold medalist Tyree Washington, were there to show support. Children ages 5 to 10 were treated to face painting, balloon animals, and many other activities, sponsored by the City of Fontana Mobile Recreation Unit.

Using the Senses

Several elementary schools across the country, including Hollywood Park Elementary in Hollywood, Florida, are experimenting with sensory rooms. These "part classroom, part indoor playground" facilities, as described in Education Week, allow children with disabilities and behavioral problems to relax and learn in an environment that stimulates the senses. Hollywood Park's room includes a vibrating ball pit that plays music. The theory behind the idea came from the Dutch philosophy Snoezelen, which states that a child's surroundings can have a "meaningful impact" on his or her behavior. Teachers working in sensory rooms say that the rooms are helpful to students with a range of illnesses, including autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy.

Young Reformer

Steven Parker, a former foster youth from North Carolina, has been chosen as one of Foster Club's Outstanding Young Leaders of 2009, according to the Hickory Daily Record. CWLA member agency the Catawba County Department of Social Services nominated Parker for work with an 18-month research project for the Casey Breakthrough Series Collaborative on Safety and Risk. Parker provided the viewpoint of the youth in the child welfare system, and often gave speeches about his experience. He has been a part of three foster families, the last of which adopted him. He will attend Appalachian State University after basic military training in South Carolina.

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