It’s the little things that can make a difference in the health of a child: taking an evening stroll after dinner; offering sliced apples for a snack instead of potato chips. But sometimes those little things that help combat childhood obesity can seem impossible to do if your neighborhood is unsafe and fresh produce is hard to find.
Cal State Northridge faculty and students are partnering with officials from Northridge Hospital Medical Center and the Los Angeles Unified School District to work with the students, parents and teachers at three Van Nuys elementary schools—Cohasset, Antoloa and Gaulp—to make physical activity and healthy eating habits a regular part of the children’s lives.
The project, which is in association with Cal State Northridge’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing and led by CSUN’s Marilyn Magaram Center for Food Science, Nutrition and Dietetics, begins in January. It is supported by a three-year, $502,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We’re very excited at the opportunity to bring the university and our community partners together to make a difference in the health of these children,” said Joyce Ann Gilbert, director of Marilyn Magaram Center and the principal investigator of the project. “We are going to take this one school at a time—expanding our ideas and plans as we go through the process. We hope that by the end of the three years we will have a model that can be taken beyond our three starter schools and can be implemented in schools across the region.
“Adopting a healthy lifestyle, especially for children, shouldn’t be hard,” she said. “We are hoping to make our project so simple that the children and their parents take it home and make it part of their daily lives.”
The project will be a collaboration between faculty and students across campus. In addition to Gilbert, participating faculty include nutrition specialist Terri Lisagor, exterior design specialist Kyriakos Pontikis, and Magaram Center associate director Rita Marie Little, all from CSUN’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. Joining them will be Tami Abourezk and Mary Jo Sarscsany from the Department of Kinesiology and and Merav Efrat from the Department of Health Sciences. Graduate and undergraduate students in the three departments also will be working on the project.
Gilbert said the faculty intend to take a three-pronged approach in working with the schools: establishing a “peaceful playground” at each school that encourages physical activity rather than structured exercise and invites the whole family to use it; developing a nutrition education program that includes vouchers to the local farmers market; and building a “Woolly” school garden that does not take up valuable green play space but instead grows on fencing.
“Parent education is an important component of this,” Gilbert said. “We want to demonstrate to them that what we propose are really simple measures that they can take home. Even if you live in an apartment, you can have a vegetable garden. The primary idea is to demonstrate ways of how to use your current resources, but also how one can expand these resources by thinking of them nontraditionally.”
Gilbert said the project will kick off its first year at Cohasset Elementary, add Antaola Elementary in the second year and Gaulp Elementary in the third year. Project organizers expect to touch the lives of more than 2,500 elementary school children and more than 1,000 parents over the course of the three-year grant.
“But we’re hoping that what we do will go beyond that,” Gilbert said.
“Once people see what can be done with what already exists, hopefully they replicate it in their school and community.”
Cal State Northridge’s Institute for Community Health and Wellbeing is a collaboration between campus and community members committed to enhancing the health and wellbeing of individuals, families, organizations and communities within Cal State Northridge’s service area. The primary mission of the institute is to foster healthful living through community and campus partnerships. These partnerships combine specialized knowledge, wisdom and experience to address major health, social and economic challenges in the area.