Arkansas Team Offering Low-Cost Remedies to Obesity

From kid-friendly yoga to new recipes, families are learning how to be healthier

May 14, 2012

By Kristina Grifantini

Arkansas Team Offering Low-Cost Remedies to Obesity
Students learn basic yoga poses after school in Augusta, AK.

Over the last few years, Arkansas has restricted or eliminated vending machines from schools, required records of students’ heights and weights, and tightened guidelines on cafeteria meals. Despite these and other efforts to combat the alarming surge in unhealthy weight, the rate of childhood obesity in Arkansas remains one of the highest in the country, at around 20-30 percent.

Augusta, Arkansas, a rural town with a population of only 2,000, resides in Woodruff county where approximately half of schoolchildren are overweight. The Woodruff Collaborate for Healthy Weight team is aiming to help families combat childhood obesity by introducing local changes. The team is one of 50 nationwide working with NICHQ to implement improvements that can bring about long-lasting results.

“What we’re teaching [families] is that through healthy lifestyle you will achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” says Jaime Whitehead, leader of the Arkansas Healthy Weight team. So far, the town seems receptive.

You Are What You Eat
On March 15, the Arkansas team offered a free community cooking class at a wellness center in Augusta. Peggy Barker, team member and registered nurse at the health provider ARcare, knew that ramen is a popular local dinner option because of its low cost, despite its high levels of sodium. She chose to share a modified ramen dish called Ramen Noodle Skillet, and showed the class of 20 how adding frozen vegetables and canned chicken raised the nutritional content of the dinner without adding much cost or time. Not only was it healthier than ramen noodles alone, but the samples she handed out convinced the class it was tastier as well. (AT RIGHT: Students learn basic yoga poses after school in Augusta, AK. PHOTO CREDIT: Carrie Fortune)

Barker says that cost is the main obstacle to healthy eating in the community. “I pointed out that store-brand frozen vegetables are a dollar a bag,” she says. “With this recipe, you’re not increasing the price that much and you get a whole meal.” After the dinner demonstration, Barker whipped up a batch of fruit parfait as an example of an easy-to-make dessert that has some nutritional value. She also compared calories for mid-afternoon snacks, illustrating how many calories are in a soda and king-sized candy bar versus a bottle of water and granola bar.

“I use calories as a shock method,” says Barker and adds that parents seemed enthusiastic about healthier options. “A big barrier I see is that people just don’t think it through. They say ‘I don’t have time for breakfast,’ or ‘I’m hungry so I’m grabbing a soda and candy bar’ instead of thinking what might be better.”

Low-Maintenance Exercise
Aside from nutrition, the Arkansas team also focused on physical activity. The team partnered with an afterschool program to offer free wellness classes for the elementary school in the afternoons. 60 children in grades 1-7 learned activities they could do with minimal equipment, such as soccer and yoga.

“They played kickball, which they love,” says Whitehead. “It’s a game that doesn’t need a lot of equipment to play so it’s good for them to do once they’re home.”

For one session, the team brought in a yoga teacher which, team members say, was a big hit.

“The afterschool program director pointed out many of the children who have attention disorders who were doing extremely well in the yoga class,” says Carrie Fortune, the grants management coordinator at ARcare and a Healthy Weight team member. “We even had one boy in 1st grade who yelled out ‘I love this!’ while doing the tree pose.”

The team also just sponsored a “Kids Camp,” a free, full-day session of activities on May 5 for any Augusta children in K-5th grade. 50 kids participated in eight stations where they learned how to kick a soccer ball, play dodge ball, throw a football, use a hula hoop, and jump rope. There were also stations for yoga, hygiene (dubbed “Germ City”) and nutrition. The team gave out goodie bags with a water bottle, health and hygiene coloring books, a jump rope, a 5-2-1-0 wrist band, an apple, and a health bar.

For an easy, free work-out that families can do anytime, the team also worked with the city government to purchase and place stationary workout equipment around a free walking trail. The five stations, installed a few weeks ago, include monkey bars and a pull-up bar.

A Green Future
In preparation for the next school year, the Arkansas Healthy Weight team convinced the elementary and high school of Augusta to install salad bars as a lunch option for students starting once a week. The schools were resistant at first, Whitehead says, but the team continued to ask and offered help.

Other projects they’d like to start include a local farmer’s market and community garden to provide fresher, cheaper food options.

“Even though we’re an agriculturally-based community, there aren’t huge options for fresh food,” she says. The local farms grow rice, soybeans or corn and, while a few residents grow produce, they tend to ship those out to grocery stores outside of Augusta, according to Whitehead. The team hopes that by organizing a local farmer’s market they can encourage some of the fresh food to stay in town.

“Our main goal is to impact our whole community,” says Whitehead.