Students board the 'SHIP' to healthy living

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

It's not often school-age kids swarm for a taste of cabbage.

But that's what happened at Clara Byrd Baker Elementary School, as students eagerly flocked to a cafeteria cart serving cooked samples of bok choy.

"It was good," said Kenai Mitchell, 10, trying the Chinese cabbage for the first time. "It was a little bit spicy, but I love spicy."

This week's sample didn't quite leave the impression of last month's kale chips, though.

"Those were delicious," Mitchell said.

Veggies often cause a stir in Williamsburg-James City County elementary schools. This year alone, students have tried 15 vegetables grown at KelRae Farm, in Toano. They might not like the taste, but they're always excited to try.

Farm-to-school tastings are but one way the School Health Initiative Program gets kids excited about healthy living and, even more, turns that excitement to habit.

From classrooms to cafeterias, SHIP is there. There's a Wellness Integration Program, promoting active learning and nutrition education in W-JCC's nine elementary schools. After-school activity clubs involve more than 1,300 elementary- and middle-school students. And consulting chefs work within school cafeterias -- from elementary through high school -- to introduce appealing, healthy options.

"We're really hoping that the SHIP program is changing the school culture, and creating a culture of health and wellness in our schools," said Amy Lazev, SHIP supervisor. "And we see a lot of change happening."

From 2010 to 2013, the number of W-JCC elementary students who ate fruit at least twice a day increased from 55 percent to 62 percent; middle and high schoolers increased from 40 percent to 50 percent. The number of sixth to 12th grade students consuming two vegetable servings daily also increased from 65 percent to 69 percent.

This data comes from SHIP surveying elementary school parents and middle and high school students in collaboration with the Schroeder Center for Health Policy at the College of William and Mary. Survey data also revealed an increase in elementary students getting physical activity for at least an hour each day, five days a week – from 35 percent to 42 percent. The next survey will occur this fall.

Not all outcomes are measurable, but one thing is certain.

"We've seen healthier behaviors in our community over time," Lazev said.

An obesity epidemic

Though a local program, SHIP targets a societal problem: childhood obesity. That's why, 10 years ago, the Williamsburg Health Foundation launched the program in partnership with Williamsburg-James City County Schools. A nonprofit grant-making organization, the health foundation funds the program fully, from challenge clubs to staff salaries. This year's grant was $626,000.

"Williamsburg and James City County, similar to the rest of the country, are experiencing a childhood obesity epidemic," Lazev said.

With the national overweight/obesity rate for school-age children at 34%, the rate for W-JCC students was at about 30 percent in 2014, Lazev said.

It's a complex epidemic. SHIP is a complex program.

But the students don't even notice what's happening. Mostly, they're having fun.

That was the scene in Erin Darcy's third-grade class as students lunged, toe-touched, crab-walked and jogged at various stations around the classroom. This wasn't a physical education lesson, but a lesson in library and reference materials.

Plank for 20 seconds. Answer: "why would a student use a glossary?" Move to the next exercise, the next question, and repeat.

The activity was a product of the Wellness Integration Program, incorporating kinesthetic learning into SOL-related academics. Three wellness integration specialists work throughout the nine elementary schools to accomplish just that.

"(The students are) learning and having fun and don't even realize they're learning," said Darcy, who regularly utilizes the active lessons.

Students don't realize they're exercising, either. It's simply a part of the school day, just like fresh foods are part of every school cafeteria through SHIP's farm-to-school program.

If the health opportunity, whatever it may be, is ingrained in schools, then the hope is that it's ingrained in students.

Tricia Poulsen said her daughter Danielle, a fifth-grader at Clara Byrd Baker, comes home talking about whatever vegetable she tried during a farm-to-school tasting.

Most recently, kale chips were the topic of conversation. And though Poulsen had prepared kale chips at home before, she noticed Danielle was more excited after the tasting. "Because it was (at school), and they saw their friends eating it and were encouraged by other people," Poulsen said.

"I think people take for granted that SHIP is here," said Tammy Underwood, a wellness integration specialist. "It's so multi-faceted. It reaches so many different people."

That reach is important, especially considering body mass index rates are significantly higher among W-JCC's low-income students, according to Lazev. Among students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, 40 percent are overweight or obese, compared to the 26 percent of students not eligible.

"You can have great programs out in the community – for people who can pay for them," Lazev said. "We try and make sure that everything we're doing is available to all of our students."

Lifelong impact

"There are programs around the country that incorporate some parts of these in programs in their schools, but the fact that this is so multi-dimensional is very innovative," said Jeanne Zeidler, president and CEO of the health foundation.

It's a model that could, and has, inspired other programs.

Enter Greater Richmond Fit4Kids, founded in 2010 by Sports Backers. An independent nonprofit group, Fit4kids targets childhood obesity throughout Richmond-area schools, and executive director Mary Dunne Stewart said the organization's Wellness Integration program is based on SHIP's model.

The statistics surrounding childhood obesity are staggering, Stewart said. "Really to make an impact, you have to go where the kids are."

Lazev also said Fauquier County's PATH Foundation recently visited SHIP and will soon implement a similar program in surrounding schools.

Locally, "We would like to not only continue what we're doing, but ensure that we're connecting and partnering with the community to create a really healthy community," Lazev said. "To reinforce everything we're teaching these kids about healthy living."

One such partner is the Williamsburg Farmers Market, which worked with SHIP to launch a Power of Produce program for kids that starts this summer.

It's one way SHIP continues the exposure beyond school grounds. Parents can get involved, too. SHIP posts wellness integration activities online, as well as recipes from consulting chefs.

Then, healthy living becomes routine living.

Reversing trends

Fast forward 10 years: the same third-graders doing crab kicks and jumping jacks in a Clara Byrd Baker classroom, Lazev said, might be studying for a college exam, struggling to stay awake.

The typical response? Grab a Coke and candy from the vending machine, Lazev said.

Hopefully not former SHIP students.

"What we're hoping is they start now, and by the time they're in that position, they're going to think to themselves, 'Okay, maybe I'll go for a little run,'" Lazev said.

SHIP can't measure ongoing impact yet, as the program started small, in select schools. Lazev estimated students exposed to SHIP's full impact are now in upper elementary school.

Survey data from 2010-2013 revealed the number of W-JCC middle and high school students getting at least an hour of physical activity five times per week decreased from 57 percent to 50 percent. The decrease is part of a national trend, Lazev said, relating directly to an increase in screen time.

SHIP offers nearly 60 after-school "challenge clubs" free of charge, including yoga, martial arts, hip hop, cooking and gardening – "They're learning lifelong health lessons in a lot of these things," Underwood said.

Last fall, 50 percent of all eligible third- to fifth- grade students participated in the clubs, as well as 10 percent of eligible middle-schoolers. The middle-school clubs are aimed mostly at sixth-graders, since students can join school sports teams in seventh grade.

Lazev hopes the challenge clubs reverse the decline in activity as children age: "Because they will have found a physical activity they really want to do and want to keep doing," Lazev said

In late April, SHIP held its seventh annual Run the DOG Street 5K, a culminating event for SHIP's popular after-school running clubs. More than 400 students participated. Some may have joined a running club barely able to run at all.

Lazev said one of the most important impacts of running clubs, and challenge clubs in general, is learning persistence.

"Once you've run a 5K, you have that sense of 'Wow, I did that. That was hard, but I did it. And I can do that, and I can do it again,'" Lazev said.

"And many of our kids do."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Connect with SHIP

Facebook: School Health Initiative Program SHIP

Twitter: @wjccSHIP

YouTube: WJCC School Health Initiative Program (SHIP)

Find out more

To reach Amy Lazev, call 603-6421 or email amy.lazev@wjccschools.org.

Visit SHIP's website at wjccschools.org/departments/student-services/ship.

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