Early warning

OSCEOLA COUNTY — The American obesity “problem” has risen to the status of an epidemic in recent years, spurring the action of many national and local groups to take steps toward improvement.

Adult fitness programs, dieting support groups and other organizations have formed to help stunt the growth of obesity rates, but with so many youth now being affected by the issue, the focus is evolving into an integrated cultural goal, starting early on to teach children the importance of health and fitness before their lives are overrun with the imminent threats of diabetes and other weight-related health problems.

“Providing information about healthy habits to students when they are young is important,” said LouAnn Gregory, coordinator of the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District’s Great Start Collaborative (GSC) at the Eastwood Early Childhood Center in Big Rapids. “It’s more likely that they will maintain those healthy habits into adulthood.”

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2010. The numbers haven’t gotten much better, with childhood obesity more than doubling in children and tripling in adolescents over the past 30 years.

The Central Michigan District Health Department, thanks to a CDC Small Communities Transformation Grant, has partnered with three school districts to hopefully tackle the growing threat of childhood obesity.

Each of three Intermediate School Districts, a general populous of nearly 450 children, received $18,635 last February to help initiate programs and training sessions for the local community and school staff about obesity solutions and prevention.

“The idea is to develop physical activity programs for preschools,” Gregory said. “Sharing information with kids and their parents and encouraging families to follow through after the children get home has a huge impact on obesity.”

The GSC community partners have been working closely with the Great Start Readiness preschool program and the North East Michigan Community Service Agency Head Start program. They developed a physical activity policy and education initiative plan to educate early childhood professionals, parents and young children on the new policy and the importance of being physically active beyond the school day.

The GSC has also already hosted a number of events which encouraged children to stay active and eat healthy, such as training sessions for staff, informative sessions and school activities like “Reggie’s Rainbow Adventure,” an educational experience hosted by Reggie, a stalk of broccoli, who encourages kids to eat colorful foods to stay healthy.

The Osceola County program services nearly 192 children and 23 staff members, not to mention the large number of parents who are invited to attend many of the informational sessions.

“We train staff members by giving them classroom ideas as well as ideas to share with families,” Gregory confirmed. “We’ve had some sessions just for staff members, and many for community members.”

The Osceola County grant program shows no signs of slowing, said Gregory, explaining that the money will last through this September and will fund a multitude of other programs for staff, families and, of course, the children.