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Forming healthy habits early

A community health improvement success story

A Healthy Hometown Story: Sioux City

One city in Iowa is doing everything it can to combat the obesity epidemic in the United States. Through their community health improvement work, the city of Sioux City and the Siouxland District Health Department supports many different local health and wellness initiatives for its residents, including school and worksite gardens and prescription programs for fresh fruits and vegetables.

The community’s health improvement efforts were recognized earlier this year when they received a 2018 Healthy Hometown Community Award during Iowa Healthiest State Initiative’s award ceremony.

While adult obesity rates nationally have doubled since 1980, childhood obesity rates have tripled. And, 9 in 10 American children have poor diets and less than half get the recommended 60 minutes of daily aerobic physical activity. According to a report from Trust for America’s Health, it’s easier to help children make healthy food and activity choices when they are younger.

“With the increase we’re seeing in childhood obesity, we really need to be vigilant about providing more and more opportunities for kids to be physically active and have access to healthy foods,” says Angela Drent, health promotion specialist for the Siouxland District Health Department. “That is why we are focused on improving the health of younger children by helping them form healthy habits around physical activity and food through two specific initiatives to help decrease rates of childhood obesity.”

Increasing physical activity

Elementary-age kids in Sioux City are encouraged to walk to school in the fall and spring by participating in a walking school bus program.

A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school to as structured as a route with meeting points, a timetable and a regularly rotated schedule of trained volunteers. The Sioux City program, which began in the spring of 2013, is coordinated by volunteer groups and staff from local elementary schools. Most routes are just under a mile and have two stops where kids can walk to from their home or be dropped off by their parents to walk to school with a chaperone.

“It provides kids an opportunity to be physically active before school, which has been proven to help prepare the kids to learn,” says Drent. “It’s fun for the kids, too. It’s an opportunity for them to socialize with their friends before the start of the school day.”

But, battling childhood obesity isn’t just about increasing opportunities for young kids to be physically active.

Encouraging healthier eating

Since 2016, nine child care centers in Woodbury County have implemented the principles of the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care (NAP SACC) program. NAP SACC is a program that aims to prevent obesity by encouraging child care facilities to adopt policies related to increased physical activity and improved nutrition.

That same year, three of the child care centers — Angel House Preschool and Child Care Center, Apple Tree Preschool and Child Care Center and Mary Elizabeth Child Care Center — decided to add on-site container gardens to their list of improvements. Each center has several large pots for growing a variety of vegetables, and children are encouraged to help maintain and tend to the container gardens during outdoor play time. “It’s really fun to watch the kids tend to it and see their excitement in watching the vegetables grow,” says Drent.

Once the produce is grown, the center staff coordinates taste tests. Research suggests that food preferences are formed in early childhood and can affect someone’s eating habits for life. By making gardening fun for young children, these child care centers are setting the kids up for healthy food habits as they grow older.

Exposure to healthier food options doesn’t stop after young children start school. Sioux City Community Schools participate in the Pick a Better Snack program’s healthy food taste testing and recipe distribution. The program serves more than 3,000 students from kindergarten through second grade every month.

In addition, three of the district’s elementary schools have established on-site school gardens that provide fresh produce to the community. The students learn how to plant, grow and harvest their gardens. Most of this locally-grown, fresh produce is then donated to Up From The Earth, a local agency that collects fresh produce and distributes it to local food pantries. Last summer, more than 24,000 pounds of fresh produce was collected and distributed.

What's next?

To keep residents of all ages moving, Sioux City recently partnered with Lime Bike — a bike rental company that you can access through your smartphone — to encourage biking as a mode of transportation and recreation as the weather warms. Down the road, the city is also looking into creating on-street bike lanes for cyclists.

“We are always going to be looking at and tackling issues, whether it’s obesity, physical activity and nutrition, mental health or environmental health,” says Michelle Lewis, health promotion and planning coordinator for Siouxland District Health Department. “We are excited about the activities in place and hope they will have a positive impact on the health of Siouxlanders.”

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Think your community can do this? Learn how Healthy Hometown can help your community address, and ultimately prevent, childhood and adult obesity. Check out Healthy Hometown online or email for more information.