In Kentucky, childhood obesity is an epidemic. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, Kentucky ranked third in the nation for childhood obesity with 21 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds considered obese.
For many years, agents and specialists with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service have encouraged children and entire families to become more active and eat healthier through several programs.
Extension personnel shared some of their successful UK initiatives and county programs during the recent Kentucky Dietetic Association’s Growing Healthy Kids in Kentucky conference.
“With Kentucky ranking third in the nation in childhood obesity and seventh in adult obesity, we really have to focus on creating an environment and communities where a normal weight is easier to achieve,” said Janet Mullins, UK assistant extension professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science in the College of Agriculture.
Mullins has co-chaired the conference since it began 10 years ago.
Lori Rice, Woodford County family and consumer sciences extension agent, hosted an evening when low income and underserved families had a meal and exercised together at the extension office.
“Research shows parents are one of the best role models for their children, so to make a difference with the children, you have to have the parents on board,” Rice said.
During the evening, a cooking demonstration was given with recipes from UK’s Plate It Up program, which uses in-season, Kentucky-grown ingredients. Local trainers and teachers offered physical activity sessions to parents and children. Each family received promotional items from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–Education (SNAP-Ed), extension handouts on nutrition and healthy recipes.
For the past four years, Martha Yount, a family and consumer sciences extension agent in Breathitt County, has organized a group of agents from Eastern Kentucky and personnel from Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability to host Pumpkin Days, a fall foods taste-testing and education program. The event reaches more than 1,000 children throughout the region, in the first grade and younger. In addition to extension and Robinson Center personnel, representatives from local health departments, the public library and the local hospital lead educational activities about art, literacy, nutrition, physical activity, music and agriculture. The children learn how popcorn grows, and they get to taste recipes containing pumpkin and sorghum. At the end of the program, they leave with their own pumpkin.
“The primary goal of Pumpkin Days was for us to help children and their families make a concrete connection that food comes from the earth,” Yount said.
In Allen County, Janet Johnson, the county’s family and consumer sciences extension agent, has encouraged young people and their families to use the county’s trail system for physical activity.
“We’re heavily focusing on movement because we see a rapidly growing trend of sedentary behavior in our community,” Johnson said. “In many rural communities, the lack of infrastructure for families to be active is a huge barrier.”
Johnson worked with community partners, including the City of Scottsville, Heart of Scottsville Main Street Program and private donors, to develop a three-mile trail system at Dumont Hill Park, a camp for Union soldiers during the Civil War in Scottsville. The trail system includes a two-mile wooded cross-country trail and a one-mile trail with signs providing historical information about the area.
Johnson utilized the Dumont Hill trails for extension events such as 2nd Sunday, where she created scavenger hunts, including ones with fairy houses and historical trivia, to interest children of different age ranges. She also advocated for the installation of geocaches on the property for year-round use.
She and the Allen County Extension Homemakers worked with the school district’s Parent Teacher Organization and county health department to enlarge existing trails on school property and make them more accessible to the public. They partnered with the county’s health department to map out the distances of different trails. These maps are now available at each school.
Extension is just one of the community partners involved in helping to make Kentucky’s children healthy. Individuals from community organizations, health departments and government, including first lady Jane Beshear, attended the Growing Healthy Kids in Kentucky conference. Beshear was the guest speaker the second day and shared information about the Governor’s Gardens, which provide food not only for the Governor’s Mansion but also for local food banks across the state.
“When children learn nutritional eating habits at an early age, they are more prone to grow up to live healthier lives," Beshear said. "Healthy eating also breeds healthy minds and helps students be better prepared for learning in the classroom. I'm so pleased to have been a part of this conference that gives parents and educators the tools to encourage healthier eating for children both in homes and at school."