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Educational video series can help schools combat child obesity

Childhood obesity is one of this nation’s most daunting and serious health issues. “Many people have the impression that schools have created the overweight problem with kids, but it isn’t true, because kids eat at other places, too,” said Charlotte Oakley, Ph.D., R.D., executive director of the federally funded National Food Service Management Institute, or NFSMI, based at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

“Schools cannot reverse the childhood obesity epidemic alone,” she continued. “Reversing the childhood obesity epidemic is a shared responsibility among parents, families, the foodservice industry, the media, schools and even the kids themselves because they are making food choices. We believe that children should have access to healthful food and be able to make healthy food choices wherever they are, at home, in school and in the community.”

That conviction underlies NFSMI’s new satellite training program, Cooks for Kids. Since last September, NFSMI has produced nine 30-minute episodes highlighting best practices in schools, restaurants and homes where healthful foods that kids like are served.

The educational sessions are produced under the direction of Oakley and registered dietician Amy Casteel, schools meals specialist for NFSMI, with a team of contracted professionals, including project manager Catharine Powers, M.S., R.D., principal of Culinary Nutrition Associates LLC; consultant Josephine Martin, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., of the Josephine Martin Group; program moderator and culinary host Gregory Mezey; and a crew of producers, writers, sound engineers, videographers and editors. The nearly $500,000 in funding for the nine episodes and supplemental training brochures and other educational materials comes from Congress through a grant administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to NFSMI.

Public access to the taxpayer-funded program is free. It is transmitted by satellite to schools the second Thursday of each month from September to May. Web access is available the next day at Supplemental materials include handouts for home and school use and a post-viewing discussion guide.

“Viewers learn techniques used by culinary professionals to produce high-quality foods that are nutritious, but also flavorful and appealing,” said Powers.

One episode, “Pizzas with Pizzazz,” features Al Forno restaurant in Providence, R.I., where owners George Germon and Johanne Killeen, along with head cook David Reynoso, add seasonal vegetables to their renowned grilled pizzas. Another takes place at Lakeland Central School District in Shrub Oak, N.Y., where foodservice director Jo-Anne Ricapito reenergized the school nutrition program by creating an in-house pizzeria and hiring Gennaro Ciavolino, a pizza chef, who makes whole wheat, vegetable pizzas that Ricapito claims are “cost effective.”

“Some episodes also emphasize physical activity,” said Casteel. “We’re trying to encourage a healthy lifestyle that includes healthy eating and physical activity.”

Getting the word out beyond schools is another critical component of the program. Casteel is working to interest public television stations to pick up the monthly episodes. Some educational stations already carry them.

A formal assessment process is set up to monitor viewers’ reactions, suggestions and post-viewing action steps taken. Next year’s theme will be American regional foods.

There are countless obstacles to serving healthful foods to kids. Cooks for Kids is an upbeat, highly professional means to deliver positive information to everyone interested in breaking through layers of lethargy and lack of information to get kids eating healthier diets. The program proves that the most powerful, influential messages come from those who are walking the talk and succeeding in helping kids adopt a healthful lifestyle.

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