The vending machines at the Clark County YMCA in Vancouver, Wash., make some people uneasy.
On the one hand, the machines bring much-needed income to the nonprofit facility. But that income comes from the sale of junk food and soda – provided by Pepsi, a YMCA sponsor – at an agency that prides itself as a leader in the growing national campaign against childhood obesity and physical inactivity.
So the Clark County Y has replaced some of the soda with fruit juice and water. At youth events, it peddles fewer bags of greasy chips and more pretzels. “We are starting to be much more conscience of what it is we’re selling,” says Kristine Perry, the facility’s associate director of wellness.
But the junk isn’t gone; some people want it. The vending machine mix, Perry says, remains “one thing that we really struggle with.”
Such struggles are taking place at youth-serving agencies all over the country, as childhood obesity and fitness are making big news. While schools have come under attack for serving unhealthy food and offering little opportunity for exercise, agencies that serve youth during nonschool hours have largely escaped public scrutiny, even though many of them are part of the problem.
“American children are spending more time in institutional settings during nonschool hours than in the past,” noted a report last year by the After School Project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJ), titled “Physical (In)activity Among Low-Income Children and Youth.” In many of those settings, such as after-school programs, youth “spend a majority of the time at a desk, doing homework, having a snack, or participating in crafts or table games.”
Many agencies are rethinking those snacks and routines. The Association House of Chicago eliminated soda from its after-school programs, despite objections from the kids. In San Francisco, the Community Youth Center recruits immigrant youth to form new sports teams that range from basketball to boat racing. In Austin, Texas, the 4-H Capital Program awards prizes ranging from Frisbees to bicycles to youth who help their families move toward healthier eating.
Going healthy, however, often requires money and facilities that agencies don’t have. Fruit typically costs more than junk food and goes bad faster, and it’s tough to play soccer without a soccer field – although some agencies try.
“We have affiliates doing their sports programs in a parking lot that’s roped off,” says Linda Haynes, director of innovative programs for New York-based Girls Inc., which has 75 affiliates. “Or they’re taking a four-block walk to the park.”
Thanks to all the national attention, there’s a little more help. The YMCA of the USA is launching a campaign to guide its more than 2,400 affiliates on what constitutes a “healthful vending machine mix.” The companies that fill those machines at many youth facilities, like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, are responding to the pressure to push healthier fare. The Afterschool Alliance is developing guidelines and resources to educate program administrators about healthful food and recreation activities. Grant-makers, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National 4-H Council, have provided new money for youth nutrition and fitness efforts.
Here’s why, in a nutshell: In 1980, about 5 percent of 6- to 19-year-olds were overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today, the figure is 15 percent.
That growth portends numerous problems for youth, from lack of endurance, strength and agility now, to greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes later. Just look at what’s happened to adults, who as a group are more overweight than kids: Last month, CDC officials said obesity is poised to overtake tobacco as the nation’s No. 1 cause of preventable death.
Yet most youth agencies aren’t doing nearly enough, says Rich Scofield, who for years has been urging agencies to provide more recreation through School-Age Notes, the newsletter he publishes. “The people on the leading edge are thinking about these issues and are [finding] more ways to incorporate exercise” into programs, he says. “For most of them, it hasn’t hit the radar screen.”
Let Them Eat Grapes
Obesity is a big blip on the radar screen at the Association House of Chicago, and it’s not just the extra pounds that Executive Director Harriet Sadauskas finds “frightening.” It’s the related risk of diabetes, which is particularly prevalent among African-Americans and Latinos, who comprise most of the population served by her 105-year-old multi-service agency.
So over the past couple of years, Association House has taken a radical step in its after-school programs: “We cut soda out totally,” Sadauskas says. “That wasn’t popular.” The youth, from first grade through high school, now get juice and water, while much of the junk food has been replaced by fruit and healthier snacks, such as trail mix.
As a result, Sadauskas says, “our costs went up.” Junk food is easier to buy in bulk and can be stockpiled for months.
But the agency turned one of its parking lots into an asset: A local farmers’ market operates there on weekends, and the agency (which also runs a food pantry) gets some of the fruits and vegetables.
That’s the kind of creative thinking that agencies are trying in taking the first and easiest step toward improving youth health: changing the food they provide.
At the Summerbridge/ Breakthrough program in Miami, Executive Director John Flickinger was disappointed in the “dismal” lunches provided last summer by a contractor who was approved for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Summer Food Service Program. “We were getting white bread with a slice of cheese slapped in,” he says.
Flickinger’s agency runs a weekend academy as well as after-school and summer programs, all serving predominantly poor youth. “One of the main issues with our kids is not obesity – it’s kids coming to school hungry,” he says. “When they do eat, they eat all the wrong stuff.”
Reports on childhood nutrition say that low-income kids consume a disproportionate amount of snacks and meals laden with sugar and fat, because such food is cheap and convenient.
Summerbridge, however, found out that Boston Market qualifies to provide meals under the USDA program. Now one of the local franchises provides “a really nutritious, decent lunch,” Flickinger says.
Many agencies actually make money on food sales, either through machines or at special events (like basketball tournaments), and that food tends to be junk. At the Clark County Y in Vancouver, veggie burgers, water and juice are now sold alongside hot dogs and soda, says Perry, the associate director of wellness.
As for the vending machines, youth agencies appear to have avoided the public relations headache that many schools suffered by signing contracts to sell certain companies’ products exclusively, often earning significantly more money if the students bought a lot of soda and snacks.
In 1997 Coca-Cola signed a 10-year “strategic alliance” with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA). The following year, PepsiCo signed a 10-year agreement with the YMCA of the USA.
The soft drink companies have spent millions of dollars to market the two organizations. The youth agencies get many other benefits, such as the $700 check that Pepsi gives to every YMCA every year.
The agreements do not require either organization’s affiliates to sell their sponsor’s products, according to the YMCA and the BGCA. (Several YMCAs sell Coca-Cola products, says Mia Ahmann, interim director of corporate relations at the YMCA.)
So what do the sponsors get out of it? Ahmann’s description of Pepsi’s benefits from the YMCA arrangement can also apply to Coke’s deal with the BGCA: “They get access to our 19 million members. They have a built-in marketing opportunity.” She says the YMCA does tell its affiliates that if they’re going to sell soft drinks, “Why not choose the company that’s really trying to support the YMCA’s mission?”
And, she notes, Pepsi “can tell the country, ‘We’re doing good things’ ” by supporting the YMCA.
Now They’re Cookin’
How do youth react to the more healthful food? At the Association House, Sadauskas says, surveys of the youths revealed a lot of complaints and one dominant request: “We want more junk food.”
“Kids were eating things they were not exposed to before,” she says.
Many agencies have found that educating youth about food, especially by having them grow or prepare it themselves, significantly boosts their enthusiasm for more healthy choices.
At the YMCA of Greater Rochester, N.Y., the Family Cooks program brings parents and kids together to talk about nutrition and lets the kids make meals and snacks at the facilities. “We’ve invested in all kinds of cooking equipment, so the snacks we provide are in line with what we’re teaching,” says Communications Director Mary Kay Walrath. Agencies that do this say trail mix and guacamole are among the favorite snacks for kids to make.
At the 4-H in Austin, kids in the Making Tracks program get credit for various nutrition-related activities, which can be as simple as a parent cooking a healthy meal at home or serving healthful snacks. The parents sign a card for each activity, as the youths work their way up through prize levels that lead to a bicycle.
That effort was funded by the 4-H Council through its Healthy Lifestyles Grants, sponsored by Kraft Foods and Cargill. The Association House used one of those $7,500, one-year grants for several nutrition education efforts, including cooking classes in which kids made their own snacks. The agency also has a gardening program for youth.
Kids enjoy it, Sadauskas says, “when you get somebody that works very motivationally with them. How do you read this label? Get your hands into this stuff and create something. Let’s invite your parents for dinner. Slowly, about the second year, we started getting feedback about, ‘We like this.’ ”
The YMCA is built around exercise, of course, and BGCA guidelines call for sports and exercise as core activities. But the lion’s share of after-school programs struggle to work in physical fitness.
The East Bay Asian Youth Center in Oakland, Calif., epitomizes the obstacles that many agencies face. “For a long time we really had not done a lot of the sport and athletics stuff,” says Executive Director David Kakishiba, whose after-school programs serve about 600 youths each day at four school-based sites. “Our organization has really been emphasizing the development of academic and intellectual capacity.”
That’s the double-whammy of the nation’s increased focus on academic achievement: Schools cut back on physical education in order to squeeze in more class time, and then kids go to after-school programs that focus on boosting what they learned in class.
“If after-school programs are so focused on academic enrichment, then they are in exactly the same position as the regular schools,” says Joyce Shortt, co-director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, based at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “Often it’s the physical activity that loses.”
For many out-of-school programs, investing time or money in recreation is an extravagance. They’re increasingly evaluated by such measures as the youths’ grades, and rarely on the youths’ physical fitness.
Stepping in to provide some balance is Team Up for Youth, which provides technical assistance and policy advocacy for community-based organizations in the San Francisco and Oakland areas. The agency began funding fitness activities largely because “the kids were asking for it,” while “the parents were asking them [the agencies] to focus more on tutoring and academic support,” says Deputy Director Rachel Baker. “One of their challenges is how to integrate it into these other programs so the parents don’t feel like it’s at the expense of the tutoring.”
Another challenge is that “it’s hard for programs to really find good models of physical fitness [activities] they can easily incorporate,” says Jenn Rinehart, associate director of the Afterschool Alliance. Most of them “don’t have facilities to really get into very high-end physical fitness programs.”
For instance, East Bay’s recent efforts to weave in more recreation are hampered by conditions at the schools where the agency works. “One school has nothing but hardtop. There are no fields,” Kakishiba says. At an elementary school that does have a field, East Bay started an intramural soccer league, but the kids can’t use one-third of the field because “it’s habitually flooded.”
As a result, “We don’t have as many kids playing.”
But kids do get to participate in hip-hop dancing and other performing arts. With space tight (and often only indoors), agencies need to improvise, weaving in activities that aren’t sports per se, but that get kids moving.
At Association House, the exercise equipment includes jump ropes and hula hoops. In St. Ignace, Mich., the Waaniniigaan-zijig Tribal Youth Council’s “Celebrate Fitness” program includes not just basketball, but native drumming, a skateboard exhibition and bands. The YMCA in Rochester runs a curriculum called CATCH – Coordinated Approach to Child Health, developed by the University of Texas – that includes simply finding an open space for some basic physical exertion. It can be “throwing a bean bag and running after it, or just stretching,” says Walrath, the communications director.
And in California, Team Up grants (generally between $10,000 and $25,000) to community-based organizations support activities that range from traditional sports to crew teams, martial arts and lion dancing. Team Up’s funders include RWJ ($5 million over nearly seven years) and the Evelyn and Walter Hass Jr. Fund.
One of the 32 agencies funded by Team Up last year, the Community Youth Center in San Francisco, helped its youth start an outreach program for other youth who were locked out of traditional sports programs: immigrants who speak little if any English.
“These are kids who are not good enough for the school team,” says Executive Director Sarah Wan. “They just hang out with their friends after school at a playground.”
The youths formed teams, sometimes joining existing school or county leagues, for sports such as soccer, volleyball and dragon boat racing.
Special initiatives, however, come and go. In the long run, it’s the everyday food and fitness routines at a youth agency that will most affect the kids. “We need to make healthy choices,” says Walrath at the YMCA. “If we’re putting potato chips in front of these kids, we’re not making the right choices.”
Funding for meals and snacks:
Food and Nutrition Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
State contact numbers only:
Rachel Baker, Deputy Director
Team Up for Youth
310 Eighth St., Suite 300
Oakland, CA 94607
National 4-H Council
Healthy Lifestyles Grants
7100 Connecticut Ave.
Chevy Chase, MD 20815-4999
Harriet Sadauskas, Executive Director
Association House of Chicago
1116 North Kedzie Ave.
Chicago, Illinois 60651
“Physical (In)Activity Among Low-Income Children and Youth”
The After School Project
180 W. 80th St., Second Floor
New York, NY 10024
Selections from No Junk Food, a California-based advocacy group at www.nojunkfood.org:
• After the Fall spritzers
• Bottled water
• Campbell’s Tomato Juice
• Dole Pineapple Juice
• Edensoy soy milk: chocolate and vanilla
• Juicy Juice
• Langers juice
• Martinelli’s sparkling cider
• Milk: 1% and fat-free, unflavored and chocolate
• Minute Maid orange juice and 100% juice blends
• Minute Maid Disney Hundred Acre Wood 100% juice
• Motts Apple Juice: natural style
• Silk Soy Milk: chocolate and vanilla
• The Switch Pure Sparkling Juice
• Tropicana juice: apple and grape
• V8 juice
• Veryfine fruit juice
• Vitasoy chocolate milk
• Welch’s Grape Juice
• Barbara’s granola bars and multigrain cereal bars
• Barbara’s Snackimals: chocolate chip
• Chex Mix: traditional
• Clif Bar
• Dannon Light & Fit non-fat yogurt
• Dole Fruit Bowls
• Envirokidz Crispy Rice Bars
• Fresh fruit and vegetables
• Frito Lay Baked Doritos: Nacho Cheesier Frito Lay Baked Lays
• Frunola Energy Bars
• Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Cereal Bar and Nutri-Grain Twists
• Kettle Krisps, low-fat, BBQ and low-salt
• Kettle Valley 100% fruit bars
• Kirkland low-fat yogurt
• Kirkland’s Trail Mix
• Luna Bars: peanut butter and jelly, sesame raisin crunch
• Mott’s Applesauce, individual cups
• Nature Valley Crunch granola bars and Chewy Trail Mix bars
• Natural Value Fruit Leathers
• Newman’s Own salted rounds pretzels
• Robert’s American Gourmet: Plundered Booty, Potato Flyers with balsamic vinegar and sea salt, Potato Flyers with pesto and parmesan
• Snyders of Hanover: homestyle, thin pretzels and mini-pretzels, Butter Snaps
• Tumaro’s Krispy Crunchy Puffs: tangy BBQ, natural corn, ranch, herb and cheddar
Where to Find Ideas
Books and websites for fitness and nutrition activities, selected from a resource guide being developed by the National Institute on Out-Of-School Time.
Contact: (781) 283-2547, www.niost.org.
Pre-School to Grade 6
Games, Games, Games: Creating Hundreds of Group Games and Sports, by David L. Whitaker. Redleaf Press, www.redleafpress.org.
Active for Life: Developmentally Appropriate Movement Programs for Young Children, by S. Sanders. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, www.naeyc.org.
85 Engaging Movement Activities – Learning on the Move, K – 6 Series, by P.S. Weikart and E.B. Carlton. High Scope Publishing, www.highscope.org.
Beyond Activities: Learning Experiences to Support the National Physical Education Standards, Elementary, S.P. Kogut, editor. American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, www.aahperd.org.
Elementary School Recess: Selected Readings, Games, and Activities for Teachers and Parents, R.L. Clements, editor. American Press, www.AfterSchoolCatalog.com.
The Health Fitness Handbook, by B. Franks, Edward Howley and Yuruk Iyriboz. Human Kinetics Press, www. humankinetics.com.
Promoting Physical Activity: A Guide for Community Action, by U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Human Kinetics Press, www.humankinetics.com.
Active Youth: Ideas for Implementing CDC Physical Activity Promotion Guidelines, by U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Human Kinetics Press, www.humankinetics.com.
Beyond Activities: Secondary Edition, S.P. Kogut, editor. American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, www.aahperd.org.
“PHAT – Promoting Healthy Activities Together,” www.canfit.org/phat.
“Fun 4-H Activities with Food,” Michigan State University Extension. www.msue.msu.edu/cyf/youth/foodactiv.html.
“Youth-Health Nutrition,” links to websites about youth and nutrition. www.youth-health.com/Nutrition.html.