Building Healthy Communities comes to Halfman, Hoover

Local elementary schools join statewide effort to battle childhood obesity

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published September 25, 2013

MADISON HEIGHTS/HAZEL PARK — Believing that healthy habits start young and last a lifetime, a few groups have come together to equip participating elementary schools with the means to better prevent childhood obesity. 

Halfman Elementary in Madison Heights and Hoover Elementary in Hazel Park are among the 28 schools participating in Building Healthy Communities (BHC) this year.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan first started BHC in 2009. In 2012, they partnered up with the Michigan Fitness Foundation and Wayne State University. Now, they’ve added the University of Michigan and the United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

The collaborative effort has now reached more than 35,000 students in 83 school buildings across the state.

“It was really important for our organization because we know that healthy eating and physical activity habits are best started at a young age,” said Shannon Carney Oleksyk, registered dietician and healthy living advisor for BCBSM’s Social Mission division. “We want children to have a long and healthy life. In the beginning, it was just BCBSM, but then we realized how important it is to have strong partnerships. The ones we’re working with now have added so much value to this program.”

BHC starts with extensive training for certain school staff members — the principal, food service director, physical education and health teachers, after-school program coordinators, and so on. They receive a complete overview of the program and learn how to improve their specific areas back at the school.

“Once they have that training, they can go back and implement the components, but they don’t go back without support,” said Carney Oleksyk. “They have face-to-face support with hands-on, in-person training, and we also have remote assistance for when issues come up. Our coordinators visit each school to make sure they’re on track.”

A physical education teacher, for example, would implement the Exemplary Physical Education Curriculum, an award-winning, evidence-based course used by teachers around the state, with a focus on health-minded knowledge, attitudes and skills.

The food services director is charged with implementing breakfast in the classroom. Each school decides what works best for them. Some decide to deliver straight to the classrooms, while others opt to grab-and-go as they hop off the bus and head inside.

“They’re already bagged up — a breakfast in a bag and a milk to go with it. It’s a balanced meal with grains, fruits and dairy. Each school sets their own menu, but they follow these federal guidelines,” Carney Oleksyk explained.

“The reason we’re doing this is to increase access to breakfast for students,” she said. “When students have it in the classroom or grab it as they go to their desk, they’re using the first 10 minutes of instructional time to eat their breakfast, which is allowed by the Department of Education. Not all students eat, but for those who need it, it’s accessible. We know we’re increasing participation rates for breakfast, and we know that students who are well-nourished are better able to learn.”

BHC also provides the necessary equipment for schools to deliver the breakfast to the classrooms in a safe way, keeping the cold foods cold and the hot foods hot.

Another example of how BHC works is “active recess,” where each school receives a cart full of equipment, such as jump ropes, hula-hoops, balls and more. This way, even if a school doesn’t have much in the way of a playground, their students can keep themselves busy in a physically active way at recess.

“There are even some cards with ideas for recess monitors to encourage kids to be active with different games they can play,” said Carney Oleksyk. “It’s been very well-received. The kids love it.”

Madison District Public Schools Superintendent Randy Speck said BHC plays into the district’s overall goal of improving the health of its student body.

“I’m glad we’ve got this partnership and this grant with Building Healthy Communities because those healthy lifestyle lessons need to start at a young age, and right now throughout the district, we’re putting in some healthier standards, when it comes to our food service program,” Speck said. “So when we can complement that with what’s happening in our elementary curriculum with physical education and the health lessons, it gives our students an advantage as they grow older.”

As Carney Oleksyk added: “We want to reduce childhood obesity and its long-term health risks. All of our partners agree we do that by improving the school environment. It’s critical.”