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A Healthy Valentine’s Day

Riley Elementary’s second-grade class faced an important choice: What snacks would they eat for their class Valentine’s Day Party? The class has been learning about nutrition and physical activity through Oswego County Health Department’s (OCHD) Healthy Highway program, which taught them about poor (red), cautionary (yellow), and good (green) food choices. Equipped with new knowledge about food choices, one of the second grade classes voted to have yogurt, cheese sticks, carrots, granola cars, apple juice, and raisins—instead of chips and candy—for their Valentine’s Day party.

With a grant from NYSHealth to support its Prevention Agenda goals, OCHD set out to address the high incidence of chronic disease in Oswego County caused by soaring overweight and obesity rates among schoolchildren and adults. OCHD provided training and support for the implementation of the Healthy Highway program, which seeks to increase awareness of obesity as a risk factor for chronic disease; incorporates time into the school day for students to learn about and plan nutritious snacks and lunches; and increases student engagement in physical activity.

Seth*, who is eight years old, said, “Healthy Highway is pretty fun. In the cafeteria, it helps us pick good foods and not eat things that are bad for us.”

As part of the Healthy Highway program, fifth graders worked with the school’s librarian during their library lessons to develop comic strips about what they learned. These colorful comic strips are posted around the school.

Riley Elementary’s sixth graders were trained to be “food detectives” through the program. The sixth graders sat in the cafeteria and took inventory of what other students consumed by examining lunch trays before students discarded the contents. Significant behavior change was noted in this school—Riley Elementary students ate 17.8% more vegetables and 29.1% more pineapple than students in a similar, neighboring school with no Healthy Highway program.

Teachers and parents have reported that students are often heard using the red-yellow-green traffic metaphors when referring to food, both in and out of school. One mother of three said, “Healthy Highway has been a fun way for our family to make healthy changes. For example, my kids will report at dinner if we are eating ‘green light’ foods, and even ask if we should be hiking or biking to places around town instead of jumping in the van. It has been a great way to engage with my kids about healthy habits that cross from school to home.”

A pre-test/post-test data analysis showed that participating schools saw a significant increase in student knowledge of and ability to identify healthy and unhealthy foods. As a result of Healthy Highway, schools and families now have a clearer approach to raising awareness about chronic disease and focusing on disease prevention. The Healthy Highway program has been so successful that participating schools, as well as one additional school, are interested in continuing the project in the next school year.

*name changed to protect privacy