Taking on the task of tackling child obesity

 The Children’s Health Task Force has been working for nearly a year to address the growing problem of childhood obesity in Cayman.
According to the task force’s programme coordinator, Maureen Cubbon, the group has four areas of focus – nutrition, after-school programmes, a food policy and education.
Changing people’s perceptions and approach to food and exercise is a major element in the work of the task force.
“When it comes to changing lifestyles and attitudes about health and wellness, it is definitely about awareness and education for everyone, students, teachers and parents. There are many programmes in place in the Cayman Islands that address healthy lifestyle choices for adults and children. We have had a lot of press around our youth recently which has brought to light all the efforts that have been made over the years,” Cubbon says.
She says it is clear that a consorted effort for healthier lifestyles needs to be made, especially when it comes to the youth of Cayman.
“There are many recent studies coming out of Canada and the USA that show that if we don’t act now, we will be raising the first generation that will not live as long as their parents do. This is real – everyone really needs to understand that changes have to be made,” she adds.
At the start of the school year in September 2009, the task force launched a pilot scheme, called Health4Youth, involving Year 7 students at George Hicks. The results of the first year of the programme will be known when the school year ends in June.
The pilot project is intended to be a three-year programme.
Two thirds of Year 7 students at George Hicks Campus were identified in September last year as having the highest body mass index of their peers and there has been a 66 per cent take-up rate in the pilot programme among the students in that year.
Originally, 175 children were identified in the Year 7 class in the 85 per cent and 95 per cent percentile of Body Mass Index, of which 116 children are actively involved in the programme.
According to school intake figures collated by the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority, nearly one in four schoolchildren in Cayman is overweight.
The task force works with the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority and TrinCay dieticians and nutritionists on nutrition issues by holding weekly sessions with children and addressing nutritional issues through games and by encouraging the kids to keep food journals.
Its after-school programme is run by the physical education staff at George Hicks Campus where the task force’s on-the-ground coordinator Thinn Aung and local gymn,Body Sculptor work with staff to get results. Those after-school programmes run Monday to Wednesday, from 2:45-3:50pm to coincide with the after-school bus routes home.
The task force has also been working with the staff at the George Hicks canteen on a food policy. “We have had some successes with the canteen in changing some items, but the main thing that has come out of this exercise is the need for some national direction when it comes to foods offered for school meals,” says Cubbon.
“Our nutrition team has been leading the way with this with Dr. Sook Yin and the Department of Education involved. We hope to see something implemented for the coming school year,” she says.
George Hicks campus director Lyneth Monteith said the school had been making gradual changes to its menu, removing some of the unhealthier fried items or only offering them once or twice a week; introducing salads and wraps; and replacing sugary drinks with juices.
“The salads and wraps are selling out each day,” she says, adding that generally the school’s pupils had embraced the healthier approach George Hicks was taking.
“You will always get some resistance… If you make changes all at once, it’s possible you won’t get the desired effect and the children will not eat [what’s on the menu]. No doubt some of the children are going to Burger King after school, but I think we’ve seen a significant difference here on campus,” Monteith says.
On the education side, Aung has been working directly with the Parent-Teacher Association and the life skills teachers at George Hicks. Throughout the year, members of the task force have been attending PTA meetings to provide updates and information, and have been supporting the needs of the life skills teachers for their current curriculum around health and wellness.  
“We are happy to say that with the dedication of teachers at George Hicks, such as Marie Pride, there have been some great things achieved, such as a lunchtime Wii Fit Club that kids are actively engaged in. We will be looking at different ways to continue to support the life skills team, and also work as much as we can with parents,” Cubbon says.
The team also offers psychological support for students and families who need special support.
Aung is at the school every day, and helps with all aspects of the programme coordination – working with students after school, speaking with teachers and addressing nutrition issues. “We wanted to make sure there was a presence every day at the school for this programme,” explains Cubbon.
Changes to the school’s menu have been positively met, Cubbon says. “We just need to have some national guidelines which will certainly assist the endeavour and make some clear guidelines for all schools,” she adds.
Healthier choices are also being made in other schools, such as at Cayman Prep and High School which has been reviewing its snack regime.
She says she knew it would take the task force time and effort to make and see changes, but she feels so far it has been successful. “Already, we have seen a positive effect on the children and we have the support of the Ministry of Health and Ministry and Department of Education. Teachers, students and parents have been supportive. The fact that we are working towards a national food policy is a great achievement within one school year.”
The task force hopes to see an expansion of the pilot programme at George Hick’s to other schools at the start of the new school year in September, but says that will be determined by funding.
“We know that we are going to continue working with the Year 7 students (Year 8 for the coming school year) for three years, but ideally, we want to see this sort of programme across all schools,” she says

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