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OCT
17
2016

IN THE FIELD
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HEPA standards keep kids nourished and active in Johnson County, Kansas

By Robert Abare

Written by Matt Freeman

Participants in Johnson County Parks and Recreation District's "Kids' Triathlon." Image via JCPRD on Facebook.

In Kim Chappelow-Lee’s telling, “the graham cracker community” doesn’t change its ways easily. In her role as Children’s Services Manager for the Johnson County, Kansas, Park and Recreation District, Chappelow-Lee challenged her team to adopt Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards within the district’s 30 afterschool sites, which collectively serve 1,800 children.

Particularly on the healthy eating front, however, the transition required overcoming a certain resistance to change. “We’ve totally revamped our food service and snack menu,” she explains. “But it wasn’t easy. It’s much simpler to serve processed, packaged foods to large groups than fresh items.” She says that program directors and staff were both “reluctant to give up convenience, and skeptical of how children would receive such a drastic change.”

To get over that hump, Chappelow-Lee’s team sought help from a nutritionist at the local health department, who went through the existing menus with staff and a nutritionist, bringing an outside and expert voice to the conversation and reinforcing the need to move away from the status quo.

“We can now honestly say that we’re serving healthy snacks and that there’s always fresh fruit or vegetables on the menu,” Chappelow-Lee says. That marks a significant change from a menu that was heavy on graham crackers, cereal and other processed food. “Those kinds of items were easy to get at the Sam’s Club, and easy to store. But it left us feeding children a lot of goldfish crackers. We had a ‘snack-em’ mentality, where we wanted to get this over within five minutes or so.”

“We can now honestly say that we’re serving healthy snacks and that there’s always fresh fruit or vegetables on the menu.” 

As a result of HEPA, snacks are now incorporated into the wind-down period at the beginning of each afternoon. Food is served family style, and staff encourage children to linger and unwind from the school day. “We’ve also incorporated some cooking clubs where they prepare food one day and consume it the next. They might create a ranch dip and prepare carrots, celery and sliced peppers. Last winter, they made a lot of quick and easy soups and stews to cook in the crock pot for the next day. And we’ve gotten rid of the ‘let’s get this over with’ attitude. That’s been a very positive change.”

She adds that while healthier foods are a bit more expensive for the program, “it’s not nearly as budget-prohibitive as we thought it would be, so it’s not breaking the bank.”

HEPA has also triggered big changes in the physical activity portion of the district’s programs, increasing the focus on activities that appeal to more children. Chappelow-Lee explains that, while organized structured games engage a lot of children, students who aren’t as competitive tend to drop out. “We’ve broadened the scope of high-level physical activity, so that there’s something for everybody and so they’re getting a minimum of 30 minutes of high-intensity activity every day. That includes running clubs, Zumba, a walking group and dance clubs designed to appeal to kids who don’t know left from right! And we revamped games so that they’re not full-on competitive, and maybe don’t have a winner and a loser. Where there’s an elimination type of game, if you have to get out, there’s still something you’re doing while you’re out. That gets and keeps everybody active and involved.”

Much as the transition to healthier foods was boosted by a nutritionist from the local health department, Chappelow-Lee says that staff from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation helped transform physical activity programming for the district. “They came to the sites, spent quality time with the staff, encouraged them to express all their doubts, fears and reservations, and provided lots of support to advance HEPA.”

“It all sounds pretty simple,” she reflects, “but it’s surprising how much information people need to move ahead with something new. Staff education was really important in overcoming reluctance to giving up old habits and ways of doing things. But once we got past that resistance, our amazing staff has been completely on board and totally rocking the HEPA thing. Parents have noticed, too, and they comment on what kids are eating in the program and see that it’s improved and healthier. That means a lot.”