Background: An estimated 1 in 5 adults and 4.8% of children (ages 0-17 years) were obese and living with diabetes in 2010. In 2008, chronic diseases caused 70% of deaths among Alaskan Natives, compared to 36% nationally.
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium began a project to promote healthy lifestyles using a community-based participatory research approach, where researchers work directly with communities to implement the best possible strategies for health care solutions based on their needs and interests & engage them as co-investigators, co-managers and partners.
The primary objectives were to improve physical activity by providing safe walking routes near homes and schools; support increased fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption through home gardens; and provide healthy snacks at schools.
Study Methods: This study's sample included Alaskan Natives within the Anchorage community, age 2-17 years old. Data was collected by telephone interview. Survey questions addressed activity levels, fruit/vegetable intake, and school food environments. Researchers conducted extensive community outreach to engage local leaders and residents; we also secured support from individual donors and several nonprofit foundations.
Results: A total of 168 students (grades kindergarten through 8) were involved in this project: Ninety-three percent of parents responded that their children increased their fruit and vegetable consumption as a result of the home garden program; 12% reported having healthier snack choices available since the introduction of the improved vending machines; and 99% of parents reported they are more aware of healthy eating choices.
School officials reported that the presence of a school garden improved students' food knowledge while encouraging healthier snack choices. Seventy-seven percent of parents noted that their children have either maintained or increased their physical activity levels since this project began. Children who reported being active on school days were twice as likely to eat fruits and vegetables every day, compared to those children who report low levels of physical activity (11% vs 5%).
Healthy Eating Habits: Healthy eating habits were visible in student behavior after only one year since participating in the intervention. Students ate healthier snacks such as carrots/celery and homemade trail mix or pretzels, less nutritious options like chips and candy were less noticeable at school.
School officials reported that the presence of a school garden improved students' food knowledge while encouraging healthier snack choices.
Sixty-seven percent of parents reported that their children had more fun eating healthy foods after this project began, and 62% said it had a positive impact on family mealtime discussions about nutrition. Eighty-one percent of parents felt they were better able to teach their children about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle since participating in this study.
For example, one 12 year old stated: "I started gardening...it's been good for me because I get up every morning before school and go outside and water [the plants]...I'm getting my hands dirty."
With regard to fruit and vegetable consumption, 78% of parents reported that their children ate at least one serving of fruit or vegetables every day.
Activity Levels: Children with active lifestyles were more likely to eat fruits and vegetables daily compared to inactive children (11% vs 5%). Since the implementation of this project, 13% of students surveyed report being physically active on weekdays, 21% report being active on weekends, and 6% report not participating in any physical activity during the past month. For the purpose of school grounds safety, one community board member suggested that ATVs be allowed on school grounds during non-school hours for transportation between remote homes/neighborhoods. This suggestion was endorsed by some participants but not others due to concern that allowing ATVs on school grounds will negatively impact the number of children who walk or bike to and from school.
Recommendations: The following recommendations were made by a community board during focus group discussions:
a) expand program beyond Anchorage, Alaska;
b) obtain more in-kind funding for program materials (e.g., plants/seeds);
c) create a website to advertise this work and garner support from other communities interested in implementing similar projects; and,
d) engage younger students about eating healthy foods through curriculum at local daycare centers. Community members expressed concern about possible hazards associated with having a garden near four gravel roads that cross paths in an area prone to crime. No additional risks were identified in the school's 300 page school safety manual.
Conclusion: When asked to consider the impacts of healthy eating and physical activity on children, one community participant said: "Kids that eat healthy and get exercise aren't going to be in my office."
Participants in this study reported positive results in terms of helping students make healthier choices at school and encouraging family discussion about nutrition and wellness. The majority of parents felt they were better able to teach their children about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle after participating in the project, and the majority of students surveyed reported eating at least one serving of fruit or vegetables every day. In addition, many participants noted that creating a school garden increased their awareness of nutritious food choices both for themselves and for their children. Given positive feedback from parents and students, this project could serve as a model for healthy outdoor learning projects in other communities.
Introduction: The purpose of this article is to share information about the food choices children are making at school after participating in a garden-based curriculum that involved planting, tending, harvesting, and eating fruits and vegetables grown on school grounds. This study was conducted by researchers at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), Anchorage School District, University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), Mat-Su Health Foundation, Matanuska-Susitna College Cooperative Extension Program, Kuskokwim Campus Education Program/Kuskokwim Community College Extension Service. The goals were to increase children's awareness of nutrition and wellness, serve as a model for promoting healthy eating in other communities, provide families with tools to make healthier meal choices at home, and build capacity within the local community through partnerships.
Anchorage School District (ASD) partnered with ANTHC, ISER, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Matanuska-Susitna College Cooperative Extension Program, Kuskokwim Campus Education Program/Kuskokwim Community College Extension Service on this project. The school chosen was Anchorage School District's Johnson Elementary School. This school is located in Spenard, Alaska which is an unincorporated part of the Municipality of Anchorage. Approximately 70% of students attending Johnson Elementary are eligible for free or
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