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JEP Fights Childhood Obesity

Operated by USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), the USC Young Scientists Program joins forces with the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy to hold a three-hour "health and fitness studio" at a local grade school.

By Pamela J. Johnson
November 30, 2011


JEP: Young Scientists Program
Video by Mira Zimet

When a fifth grader told Nadine Afari that pepperoni grows from the ground, the USC Young Scientists Program director decided her next event would teach children the differences between processed and natural foods.

Afari had been visiting Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School to investigate how the program, operated by USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP), could best serve the school near USC. She saw children snacking on Cheetos, Cheese Nips, Doritos, lollipops and drinking Hawaiian Punch after school and during recess. She learned physical education had been cut.

“This is not good,” Afari said to herself. “We want the students to be in great health. I knew we would have to start with the basics.”

During the Nov. 18 “health and fitness studio” at Weemes, fourth and fifth graders learned where fruits and vegetables come from and how they grow by constructing small planters in which they planted strawberries, cilantro, peppers, peas and tomatoes. At a separate station, they scooped out spaghetti squash with spoons creating angel hair-like strands, chopped tomato and basil, added oregano and made squash spaghetti — a healthy alternative to pasta. Outside, they played red light, green light and other games for a cardio workout. They also learned yoga exercises to help them relax and focus.

“Childhood obesity is a very big problem in our society,” said Tammara Anderson, JEP’s executive director, who attended the event. “This studio is showing children there are healthy options. Many of the kids didn’t know there was such a thing as spaghetti squash, for example. They can make this dish at home with their families.”

Linda Lopez, associate dean for diversity and strategic initiatives in USC Dornsife, pointed out that many typical Latin dishes are made with heavy creams and lard.

“The eating habits get passed down from generation to generation,” Lopez said during the event.

The Weemes students, who are mostly Latino and African American, she said, can educate their parents about making healthier culinary choices.

Also participating in the studio was Cheryl Resnik, associate chair and professor in the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, as well as 13 of her graduate students, who worked with the children.

“One of the professional values we teach our physical therapy students is to impact the health of society,” said Resnik, the division's community outreach director. “Our objective is to educate the kids about exercising and stretching while teaching them about their bodies. And we have a subtext for being here. We want to talk to them about physical therapy as a future career.”

Alison Thai and Janis Yee, juniors majoring in biology in USC Dornsife, were among five young scientist teaching assistants who engaged with the children. At the cooking station, Thai and Yee fastened white chef hats onto the youngsters’ heads and showed them how to dice tomatoes with plastic knives. Nutritionist Sara Train went over food preparation the dietary values of each food item on the table.

Thai teaches Weemes fourth graders science through the program.

“I see the snacks they’re eating during recess,” Thai said. “Hot Cheetos and things like that. It’s a concern.”

Yee said she wanted to educate the children about eating healthy.

“If they have a good diet, they’ll be more focused in class and better able to learn,” Yee said.

After the squash spaghetti was prepared, Thai and Yee demonstrated portion control and served a bowl to each child.

“OK, who wants to try it?” Thai asked holding a bowl in each hand.

“Me, me, me, me, me!” hollered fifth grader Lavario Wiley, 11.

Munching on the dressed-up squash, Lavario decided, “It tastes like spaghetti. But better.”

“Better because it’s healthier,” said fifth grader Johnny Jarquin, 11.

“There’s a party in my tummy,” Lavario began singing. “It’s so yummy, yummy, yummy.”

Fourth grader Candy Martinez, 9, said she hates tomatoes and never eats them. Yet, there she was slurping down the squash noodles encased in chunks of tomatoes.

So will she now start eating tomatoes at home?

“That’s a probably,” she replied.

A bit earlier, Lavario, Johnny, Candy and other children practiced yoga.

“Let’s start with some breathing so we can get nice and relaxed. So we won’t have any more stress from the school week,” a USC physical therapy student directed the children. To demonstrate, she took in a deep breath, then slowly released it.

“Take a couple of deep breaths in and out,” she said. “Breathe in and out. Good. Breathe in and out. One more time.”

While Johnny sat crossed-legged trying to keep still, he couldn’t help but share his thoughts.

“Did you know, when you learn yoga you can float?” Johnny asked the group. “The genies, they can just go like this and they can float,” he said shutting his eyes tight and putting together the tips of his index fingers and thumbs.

After the exercise, the children talked about what they learned.

“Yoga is about breathing in and out,” Lavario said. “You get exercise and it gives you energy.”

“And relaxation,” Johnny chimed in.

Fifth grader Kiara Pree, 11, said she would practice yoga at home.

“Because it helps your body rest and helps you be calm,” Kiara said. “So you don’t get frustrated. It helps you express yourself deep in your heart.”

Weemes Principal Lynn Brown was elated with the studio. Most of her students come from African American and Latino communities where high blood pressure and obesity are prevalent. She’s gotten to the point where she confiscates unhealthy snacks from students’ lunches, even when that means she must later confront parents.

“I tell parents that if they want to give their children those kinds to snacks after school, it’s up to them,” Brown said. “But during lunch they need nutrition.”

She said events such as the studio are important, especially during a time when Congress wants to pass a bill allowing tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, a move that would keep pizza on school lunch lines.

“It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard,” Brown said. “Pizza is not healthy. It’s junk food. USC has been great at helping us move in the direction of healthful eating.”