SIOUX CITY | Iowa’s war on childhood obesity and diabetes is having an impact, data shows, but the battle is far from over in Sioux City schools.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found obesity rates among low-income preschoolers in Iowa decreased from 15.1 percent to 14.4 percent between 2008 and 2011. That news came after the same rate increased nationally from 13.05 to 15.21 percent between 2003 and 2010.
Iowa’s reduction comes at a time when the Sioux City school district is pushing new physical education programs and healthier cafeteria food and snacks. Initiatives include encouraging walking or biking to school, cutting sugary vending machine foods and promoting more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Head physical education teacher Kelli Tuttle said it’s important to promote a healthier lifestyle at a younger age, especially with the growth of technology. The CDC estimates that those who are obese as children are five times more likely to be obese as adults.
“We are living a more sedentary lifestyle,” she said. “Kids are more likely to be playing video games inside than playing outside.”
Among those spearheading the effort to get students more active in the district is Spalding Park Elementary School physical education teacher Kyle Lewis. Lewis has used a $36,000 grant received in 2009 to transform the way he conducts class.
Gone are the days of tossing out a ball and dividing kids into two teams. Instead, children are climbing a rock wall and playing games meant to get them more excited about staying physically active as they advance into adulthood.
“We want to expand our activities into the classroom. I’m even giving kids homework,” he said.
School district spokeswoman Alison Benson said Sioux City has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to promoting health and wellness activities. The district preemptively cut fried foods and made cafeteria changes before a United States Department of Agriculture mandate required more fruits, vegetables and whole grains be served.
A $268,023 USDA grant is also being used to introduce students at 11 elementary schools to fruits and vegetables they might not eat at home. That includes starfish fruit, kale and mangoes.
The district also is working to earn a Blue Zone designation within the next two years. At least six schools have to meet certain requirements in order to earn the designation.
Benson hopes to have three schools certified by the end of the school year. At least three more would be certified next year.
Sioux City is among seven Iowa cities chosen as Blue Zone demonstration sites. The project is one component of Iowa's Healthiest State Initiative, launched by Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011.
“A lot of the requirements are things we are already doing,” she said. “We kind of pride ourselves that we’re always ahead of the curve.”
Bryant Elementary School parent Terri Rexius said that while efforts to promote better eating and exercise habits in school are great, the real fight over cholesterol, blood pressure and exercise starts at home.
Rexius said her third-grade daughter, Sydney, is active in youth basketball and soccer outside of school, and the two also play outside after school.
“Being physically active is a mindset,” she said. “If all you see is your parents sitting on the couch watching TV, that’s probably what you will do too.”
Tuttle said she hopes the lessons learned in the district will follow students the rest of their lives.
“Childhood obesity and diabetes have been on the rise,” she said. “We know our children are going to live five years less than us unless we teach them about health and fitness.”