Linking nutrition programs with Safe Routes to School’s focus on physical activity is enabling schools in Orange County, Fla., to target school wellness with a holistic approach designed to reduce childhood obesity.
Orange County Public Schools, the 11th largest school district in the nation, requires that each of its schools form a Healthy School Team. Dr. Toni Moody, founder of the non-profit Health Masters Club, viewed Safe Routes to School as the physical activity component of health promotion among schoolchildren. She used SRTS to complement the Team Nutrition Initiative, a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program. Her efforts resulted in the Health Masters Club Step Up to School TM wellness program.
Moody, a pediatrician, founded Health Master’s Club in 2003 with the primary goal of reducing childhood obesity. In 2007, the Florida Department of Health and Health Masters Club applied for a SRTS grant that would complement the existing school wellness curriculum.
The Florida Department of Health was awarded a $50,000 non-infrastructure grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to pilot the Step Up To School TM wellness initiative at Ivey Lane Elementary School and Wheatley Elementary School, both of which serve about 400 children each from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. Health Masters Club has a contract with the Orange County Health Department, which reimburses costs for some of the services offered under agreement with Health Masters Club.
“A key factor in the success of our program was establishing linkages with the Florida Department of Health and Orange County Health Department to promote Safe Routes to School as a gateway to making communities healthier,” Moody says.
Before beginning the program, the Healthy School teams surveyed parents to identify the top three reasons why they did not allow their children to walk to school. The primary cause was concerns about neighborhood safety. Teachers conducted in-class hand tallies at Wheatley Elementary and Ivey Lane Elementary to determine how many students walked to school both before the program began and at the end of the program’s first year. In addition, as part of on-going childhood obesity studies sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staff and students from a local university measured the Body Mass Index (BMI) of Wheatley Elementary students.
Health Masters Club coordinated a comprehensive education plan at four schools (Ivey Lane Elementary, Wheatley Elementary, Lake Silver Elementary and Apopka Elementary) to promote physical activity among students and to encourage parents’ support for walking and bicycling to school. Activities included PTA presentations, letters to families from principals, Wellness Wednesdays on Wheels, a 10-day countdown to Walk to School Day, safety lessons for students and other school arrival options for parents such as “Park and Walk” locations and walking school buses. A 10-lesson safety curriculum was provided to second- and fourth-graders, and Epilepsy Foundation of Central Florida provided bike helmets for every student who completed a bike safety and helmet-fitting module. Healthy School Team teachers were provided mini-grants to become certified in Florida Elementary Traffic Safety Education.
To address parents’ concerns about neighborhood safety, the Healthy School team reached out to community partners to involve them in the efforts. A county-wide mapping assessment completed by the Orange County Traffic and Engineering Department identified potential minor infrastructure improvements, such as signage and flashers, and a Pedestrian Safety Committee was formed to link the health, transportation and neighborhood stakeholders. Parents participated in a letter-writing campaign to request the safety improvements.
Results from the in-class tallies showed a 37 percent increase in students walking to school at Ivey Lane Elementary and an 18 percent increase at Wheatley Elementary during the program’s first year. Crossing guards help keep count of students who walk or bicycle to school. The number of Orange County schools participating in Team Nutrition Challenge has tripled, and plans are underway to expand the program to Osceola County.
“The mission of the SRTS program awesomely complements those of Team Nutrition,” Moody says. “It was a good fit to incorporate and promote the healthy eating message along with the importance of physical activity by walking and biking to school.”
For these Central Florida communities, combining Safe Routes to School and Team Nutrition has opened new paths to wellness.
“We can do so much more (for obesity prevention),” Moody says. “And the best way to begin, of course, is in your own back yard.”
Dr. Toni Moody
Pediatrician and Founder of Health Masters Club
(407) 342-0303 (cell)