Nutrition education program expands to Bradford, Tioga County classrooms

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Center for Childhood Obesity Research (CCOR) has expanded its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) program, “Healthy Kids Club,” to reach more children and their families in underserved populations. 

For the 2015-16 school year, the Healthy Kids Club served more than 750 children and their caregivers from families enrolled in 43 classrooms in Blair and Huntingdon County Head Start preschools, according to Angela Tzilkowski, CCOR education program associate.

This year, the program is expanding to Bradford-Tioga Head Start, Inc. and will serve an additional 280 children in 17 classrooms. The expansion is made possible by SNAP-Ed funding, which comes from the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Tracks program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

The Healthy Kids Club is a classroom-based intervention that promotes healthy eating and physical activity for low-income preschoolers and their parents and caregivers in central Pennsylvania. The program focuses on research-tested, behaviorally-focused, preschool classroom-based educational interventions.

“Our Healthy Kids Club program objectives include increased recognition of and exposure to fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods, and promotion of daily physical activity,” Tzilkowski said. “The Healthy Kids Club provides monthly nutrition lessons for Head Start classrooms, including stories, songs, games and movement.”

All lessons include food tastings and hands-on food experiences in order to expose children to healthy foods, and to teach children to recognize and make healthy food and beverage choices.

“Food tastings expose children to new foods in a fun and positive way, where the goal is for most of the kids to try a new food,” Tzilkowski said.

The program allows CCOR to form strong community partnerships that expand the reach of interventions to families with infants and young children who are at risk for development of childhood obesity in underserved areas of central Pennsylvania, Tzilkowski said.

“Through Healthy Kids Club, we are also building the capacity of our partners for making sustainable improvements to the preschool environment related to nutrition and physical activity for low-income families,” she said.

Jody Thomas, executive director of Bradford-Tioga Head Start, said collaborating with CCOR on the Healthy Kids Club program may help tackle the problem of childhood obesity.

“A few years ago we noted that we were seeing an increase in the number of children who were overweight and obese,” Thomas said. “When we were approached about being involved with CCOR, we welcomed the opportunity to partner with them to provide nutrition education to children, parents and staff. Education staff have participated in training designed to educate them on the Healthy Kids Club program, which promotes healthy eating and physical activity for our children and families.”

Brenda Garlick, education manager for Blair County Head Start, said the agency’s partnership with CCOR over the years has complemented classroom learning. 

“The quality of instruction CCOR has provided to young children enhances goals of the Head Start Program,” Garlick said. “We believe children need to develop the knowledge and skills that help promote nutritious food choices and healthy eating habits. In order for children to be learners, they have to be healthy by eating nutritious food and getting physical activity. Children can’t learn if they are tired and hungry.”

In addition to classroom lessons, CCOR also uses SNAP-Ed funds to evaluate innovative approaches to better reach and engage low-income parents and caregivers who often live in hard to reach locations.

“There are many barriers, such as lack of time, transportation and child care, for low-income parents and caregivers to participate in educational events in person,” said Jennifer Savage Williams, interim director at CCOR, and local project director for PA Tracks SNAP-Ed programs. “We are addressing these barriers by examining the use of mobile and online technologies — text and email messaging, social media, online educational modules and videos — to reach low-income caregivers and improve our SNAP-Ed program outcomes.”

This summer, CCOR will launch another program to support underserved families. In collaboration with the Tioga County Partnership for Community Health’s Fit for Life program, CCOR will provide nutrition education at three feeding sites, further expanding its reach to low-income families with children ranging in age from infancy through age 18.

The overall mission of CCOR is to conduct interdisciplinary research that contributes to the evidence base needed to inform successful childhood obesity prevention programs that can then be disseminated to public health and clinical practice audiences.

The center is located in Noll Laboratory on Penn State’s University Park campus.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017