“Miss Iosco” of Michigan is Helping Kids to Get Fit

April 19, 2012
By Kristina Grifantini

Collaborate for Healthy Weight Iosco team promotes healthy weight at an Easter event.
The Collaborate for Healthy Weight Iosco team promotes healthy weight at an Easter event.
Shelby Fransee, an undergraduate student and the winner of the local Miss America pageant in Iosco County, Michigan, has been putting her crown to good use. Since winning last October’s contest, Fransee has been giving community talks on the importance of preventing childhood obesity. One such talk inspired leader of the team participating in the Collaborate for Healthy Weight initiative from Iosco County to invite Fransee to join the effort in promoting healthy living choices in northern rural Michigan, a state where approximately one out of every three children is obese.

“Working in pediatrics, we know how little children are excited to see any princess type of person. We thought they might listen to her more,” says Tana McKulsky, nurse practitioner and leader of the Iosco Healthy Weight team. The team, along with dozens of others across the country, will rely on support and training from the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality (NICHQ) to make sustainable improvements to children’s healthcare over the next year.

“It draws attention from kids to have that crown,” confirms Fransee, who will be competing in the Miss Michigan pageant in June. “I put it on my head and they really want to talk.”

Fransee, who is studying exercise science at Saginaw Valley State University, has been personally affected by the dangers of childhood obesity. Over the years, she’s watched her older brother struggle with his weight. Now, she says, he’s having health issues like high blood pressure and poor circulation at the age of 23.

She says their differences in health might stem from her extracurricular interests: she enjoyed sports and he preferred video games. But childhood obesity is caused by more than propensity for computer activities, she says. There are few gyms in her rural town; fresh fruits and vegetables tend to be expensive; and there aren’t ready opportunities for kids to get exercise, such as walking home from school. What’s more, many parents simply don’t know how to acknowledge childhood obesity or that it’s even a health risk, she says. “Families don’t notice that their kids are overweight. They assume it’s baby fat and that the kids will grow out of it,” says Fransee.

The Iosco team – which also consists of a state dietician and two parents of overweight children – plans to tackle childhood obesity by sharing information about healthy food and exercise choices at local events this spring and summer. The weekend before Easter, the team organized a table at a holiday event at Neiman's Family Market, a major grocery store for residents of the town of Tawas and surrounding communities in Iosco County.

Before the kickoff event, team member and pediatrician Dr. Joanna Studley (known as “Dr. Jo” and much beloved in the community, according to Fransee) worked with team member and grocery store owner Nate Neiman to place a “Dr. Jo’s lunchbox-approved” sign on around 150 breakfast and lunch foods, such as eggs, fruits, vegetables and oatmeal. The team hoped that their promotional table and approval stickers would encourage families to think about how to eat healthier.

On the day of the event, the team set up a table by the door, along with an Easter egg hunt and face-painting stations. Team members dressed as vegetables and Fransee wore her crown as they passed out bags containing healthy lifestyle brochures and stickers, pedometers, the family cooking magazine ChopChop, bottles of water and a jump rope or flying disk. Fransee explained to children how to make healthy decisions so that “when they’re home by themselves or when they’re out without their family they can make good choices—they don’t grab the sugary cookies and the salty chips but reach for the healthier snacks,” she says.

While it’s too early to know if sales of healthier items have increased, the table and labels of approval seemed to be a hit. “The kids were going into store and saying ‘Oh, Dr. Jo likes this,’ so they’ve been excited about it,” says Fransee. “Dr. Jo” says that she has received messages from families excited about the labels. McKulsky adds that, so far, everyone’s been receptive to learning more about healthy choices.

The event is the first of many local festivals the team plans to visit to educate the community about the importance of healthy eating and exercise. In addition, Fransee will take the message to a state level: with Dr. Jo’s mentoring, she will talk to state representatives at the state capital about preventing childhood obesity. She also will continue to promote healthy choices during her Miss Michigan campaign. After graduation, she says she plans to create a child-friendly gym that offers indoor activities such as basketball or jump ropes – a place where “kids don’t have to compete with adults.”

Fransee encourages whole families to chose nutritious foods or enjoy outside activities together as a way to impart healthy choices, rather than focus on a child’s weight. “You need to implement this lifestyle in children because that’s what they’re going to carry in their adulthoods,” she says. “It’s so much harder for adults to change.”