It's 'Crunch' time for Head Start students

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By ARIEL RAMCHANDANI

The Move 'n' Crunch program at the Head Start center in Austin teaches healthy eating and exercise during the school day. Children learn about food, where it grows and, most importantly, are encouraged to try and try again. They make notes about what they do and don't like on a chart or "taste passport."

So far, the proof is in the pudding - well, broccoli - says Camille Gant, the center coordinator. "I heard a child yesterday talking to another child and saying, 'If you don't like it, just take two bites.' This lets me know it is really coming true for the children."

Cody McSellers-McCray, director of health promotions at the Westside Health Authority and creator of the program, has seen a noticeable change in eating preferences.

"The parents always tell us, 'My baby said he had broccoli salad. I didn't even know he eats broccoli.'"

The Westside Health Authority, headquartered at 5417 W. Division, began the program in 2010. It now runs in three Austin schools and two early childhood centers, with sponsorship from Blue Cross-Blue Shield Illinois and the National Institutes of Health.

The program began with an emphasis on cooking but has since shifted toward tasting.

"The tasting and identification parts are important," said McSellers-McCray. "A lot of time they don't get that exposure. That's what really makes a difference - them being able to identify it and taste it, versus how many calories or label reading, which is not fun for kids."

The program offers a creative solution to a difficult problem. Childhood obesity rates in Chicago are as high as 22 percent, double the national average, according to the Consortium to Lower Childhood Obesity.

"Obesity treatment is very hard; it's behavioral," said Dr. Helen Binns, director of the nutrition clinic at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

According to Binns, positive reinforcement can possibly lead to a change in habits. "You have to have it often, and you have to have people talking about how good it is," Binns said. "It can't be the punishment. It can't be, 'Oh if you eat your peas then you can watch TV.'"

Move 'n' Crunch aims to change behavior beginning at a young age. "Teaching them early is the best way," said McSellers-McCray. "That's how you build habits."

The Austin neighborhood is classified as a "food desert," a district with little or no access to fresh foods. Trash litters the streets, and the neighborhood is beset with crime, gang activity and drug dealing.

McSellers-McCray acknowledges that taste is only a small part of the solution. "If you don't have access to safe parks and you're stuck in the house all day, you won't exercise. And I'm not going to the corner store if drug dealers are outside, even if they sell fruits and vegetables."

Still, she says, the classroom is a great place to start, and the best way to reach children and families.

Chicago Public Schools may also have an interest in adopting programs like this now that its school report cards, which are public and online, include a health grade.

Said McSellers-McCray, "We're just trying to play our role, play our part."

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