Tackling Obesity One School at a Time

This story was gathered from David Snyder's visit to CDC. David reports on CDC programs in action for the CDC Foundation.

Schools are the ideal setting for children to exercise and eat healthy food, given the significant amount of time they spend there every day. One corporation decided to act to help schools tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity. Partnering with the CDC Foundation and CDC, Cargill provided $300,000 in grant money to help 47 elementary schools with one simple goal: to improve children’s health.

“These grants were for things they could do at the school level to increase physical activity and eat healthier food,” says Anu Pejavara, an adolescent and school health expert from CDC who was involved in the Cargill Mini Grants project. “Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled over the last three decades. Whatever we can do to get kids exercising and eating better in school is essential.”

Approximately 600 schools completed CDC’s School Health Index as part of the grant application process. From this pool, 47 schools were chosen to receive grants ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. As part of that application process, each school submitted a plan outlining how they would use the money to make their schools healthier. Those proposals, Pejavara says, ranged from walking trails and playground equipment to dance classes and healthy food taste tests.

“For schools, a few thousand dollars is huge. Some of the grant recipients got very creative,” Pejavara says. “Why not have healthy schools? That’s where kids develop habits for a lifetime.”

The idea for the mini-grants stemmed from a compendium of health and fitness guidelines CDC first produced in 2000. Known as the School Health Index, the guide offers evidence-based, concrete examples of steps schools can take to increase the health of their students and teachers.

“It really is one of our most popular publications,” Pejavara says. “And we have over 16,000 registered online users.”

While some of the programs outlined in the guide require funding to get off the ground, many of the tips are free for schools to implement. For example a simple change schools can make, Pejavara says, is repositioning french fries in the lunch line and replacing them with apples. Apple sales skyrocketed at schools where this basic technique was employed.

“All of the ideas in the document are based on research, providing ways to make students healthier,” Pejavara says. “Each school has its own context, and we don’t encourage schools to compare themselves to others.”

Pejavara says that many of the schools did their own studies to see how their new fitness and nutrition projects impacted school health. Teachers reported more attentive students and improved test scores after adding more exercise time to the day’s routine.

As obesity rates across the United States continue to climb, due in large part to poor diet and limited daily exercise, Pejavara sees schools as the perfect place to start educating youth on how to stay fit. The Cargill grants, she says, were a first step in that process.

“This got a lot of attention for school health, so we would be really interested to do this again,” Pejavara says.


PROGRAM SNAPSHOT

Purpose:

An innovative partnership with Cargill and the American School Health Association enabled the CDC Foundation to award mini-grants to 47 U.S. elementary schools to improve their physical activity and nutrition policies and programs. Schools used the mini-grants to build walking trails, purchase sports and recreation equipment, increase healthy food choices in lunchrooms and classrooms, and educate students and faculty about health eating. More than 600 schools completed CDC's School Health Index as part of the application process.

List of schools that received mini-grants.

Funding Partner:

Cargill

Program Partners:

American School Health Association, CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health


Terri Heyns, MA, is the associate vice president for communications for the CDC Foundation.