If you don’t set the lettuce down gently, it’s going to bounce away.
This was one of the lessons 23 third-graders at William Hart Elementary in Gretna learned during physical education class on a warm September morning.
The lettuce, in this case, was a tennis ball. The onion was a bowling pin. A red shuttlecock was the tomato. Through a relay competition, the students competed to create a complete salad.
It wasn’t your typical playground activity, and it’s not supposed to be. The game is just one small piece of an international program called CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) that aims to prevent childhood obesity and promote healthy school and community environments.
Currently in use at 10,000 schools in the United States, as well as in Canada and Ecuador, the program is being rolled out in eight Jefferson Parish School System elementary schools. Thanks to an $80,000 charitable grant by the Humana Foundation, 4,200 students ages kindergarten through fifth grade will be participating in the program this year.
“We’re so excited to have the opportunity to participate in CATCH,” said Janeen Weston, principal of William Hart Elementary. “Everyone at the school has a role in the program — the teachers, cafeteria, nurse, office staff — we’re all dedicated to working together to create a healthy environment."
Each school is given a CATCH coordination kit — a specific plan with guidance for every member of a school. It also includes ways to bring in parents and members of the community.
Classroom lessons are provided for each grade level on things like the importance of physical activity, nutrition and screen-time reduction, which are then reinforced by creative physical education activities and healthier school lunches.
One of the things Weston loves about the program is that it is backed by strong evidence, specifically 25 years of data and 120 academic papers that indicate the program results inasmuch as an 11 percent decrease in overweight and obese children.
Posters throughout William Hart illustrate examples of “Go,” “Slow” and “Whoa” foods, with things like fresh fruits and vegetables given a green light, followed by less healthy items like low fat dairy and lean hamburgers, and finally, “Whoa” foods such as cakes, cookies and soft drinks.
“We’re pretty good with our school lunches,” Weston said, “But we could do better with our snacks. Right now we offer a healthy option, popcorn, and an unhealthy option, Sour Patch Straws, to our parents, and they choose which they want for their child. We make sure to price the popcorn lower. It’s 50 cents and the candy is $1, but still, they almost always choose the candy."
Weston says this only illustrates the importance that CATCH efforts extend outside the classroom.
“We’re going to have two family nights over the year where we can try and educate parents on reading food labels,” Weston said. “And as far as our part with snacks, the goal is eventually not to even offer the unhealthy option.”
Teachers and staff are also encouraged to practice what they preach.
“I’m going to be encouraging them all to be CATCH VIPs, which means they are modeling good behaviors like getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and eating healthy,” Weston said.
“The whole program, including training, is provided at no cost to the schools,” she added. “The goal as a CATCH school is that this program becomes ingrained in everything we do.”