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May 5, 2015

Project FIT approaches school nutrition from new directions

A recent project led by Michigan State University researchers has shown that a multicomponent approach could be a valuable method in improving the health and nutrition of schoolchildren.

With many children in the United States failing to meet USDA Dietary Guidelines, Project FIT, a two-year initiative, encouraged improvements in nutrition, physical activity and the health environments of students in four elementary schools. The initiative, which aimed to improve students’ eating habits and levels of physical activity, used an approach that incorporated school, community and social marketing efforts.

The results, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Community Health, showed that during the second year of the project children consumed more fruit, vegetables and whole grain breads over the school year. In comparison, children's consumption of healthy foods declined in a similar school.

“All kids benefit from eating healthy and being active regardless of their body type or background,” said Katherine Alaimo, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and lead author of the article. "We felt strongly that this project should be accessible to all kids in the schools."

The project was conducted with ethnically diverse students in four elementary schools chosen from among the lowest income neighborhoods in the selected school district. The researchers focused on training teachers, interactive nutrition education, opportunities to taste test foods, positive reinforcement from cafeteria healthy eating coaches, social marketing-based health messaging and promotional activities to conduct the intervention.

“We worked with the individual schools to find out what would work for them,” Alaimo said. “We worked with teachers and gave them options and training that they could tailor to their individual classrooms.”

The project was a collaboration between MSU and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, along with a number of other cooperating partners, including Grand Rapids Public Schools, Michigan State University Extension, the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids and many others.

“BCBSM is committed to improving children's physical health, increasing academic success and helping stem the growing burden of childhood obesity in the state,” said Jeff Connolly, a senior vice president at BCBSM. “To that end, we are honored to be a part of Project Fit.”

Funding was provided by BCBSM, the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) and Grand Rapids Public Schools Nutrition Services.

“It is because of the strong partnerships we had that we were able to accomplish this project,” Alaimo said. “We really couldn’t have done it alone.”

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