FAIRFIELD COUNTY — A program is catching on throughout the Fairfield County School District that could have a serious long term health benefit for a generation of school children and their families.
The Coordinated Approach to Childhood Health (CATCH) program promotes healthy lifestyle choices as it facilitates learning. Teachers and staff model healthy eating habits and encourage students to make positive choices when it comes to exercise and nutrition.
On Wednesday, faculty and staff from Fairfield Elementary, Fairfield Magnet School for Math and Science and Kelly Miller Elementary presented this innovative program to officials from the Chester County School District.
Children receive training using signage, puppetry skits and object lessons so they learn the different between Slow (moderately healthy), whoa (unhealthy) and go (healthy) foods.
School nurses like Ashlyn Porter perform initial baseline body mass index readings on the children which are then kept on green cards and followed during their school years. They also work with the CATCH committee to encourage parents to have their children checked for high cholesterol and childhood diabetes. Hearing and vision screenings, dental access, preventative health and weight management all fall under the CATCH umbrella.
Principal Tammy Martin used a recent reward incentive for the FES book challenge as an example of CATCH working across the curriculum. Students who had read a certain number of books were treated to eating out at Golden Corral with the principal, but on that trip the chaperones reminded children about slow, no, and go foods before they went to the buffet bar and each child was required to eat at least two vegetables in the meal.
Children are encouraged to ask parents for healthy snacks while they are grocery shopping. Also, movement is interspersed throughout the school day. These “brain gym” exercises get students up and moving help to promote blood flow in to the brain. The “brain gym” uses both the left and right side of the brain at once and will help students learn more.
Another way CATCH’s proof is in the proverbial low-fat pudding comes in student discipline referrals. At FES discipline referrals dropped from 1,080 in 2008 to just 132 thus far in 2012-13. That change fit with what research has shown nationwide and that self discipline on the part of students was something that impressed Superintendent Mick Zais on a recent trip he made to Fairfield County Schools.
Sharing the knowledge
Officials from Chester County met as liaisons with Fairfield County School District faculty and staff to explore what a CATCH program would look like if it were put into place in Chester. Chester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Agnus Slayman had heard of the reputation of the CATCH program and wanted to look into making that success catch on in her district.
Without this type of educational intervention, some of the staff that were present fear that a large portion of the current generation of young people will die prematurely due to complications from type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Principal Gail Whitfield at Fairfield County Magnet School for Math and Science shared her perspective with the guests from Chester County. “We have done a fantastic job with the CATCH program at our site, just as other FCSD schools have done at their sites. It takes the involvement of everybody for the program to work.
The CATCH initiative is not more work for your staff, it’s changing the way of doing things the wrong way for our children to live healthier lives,” Whitfield said. “If we can give students the tools at the school level of eating healthier, they can share these tools with their parents.”
Chester Health care Foundation President Bill Bundy, a resident of Fairfield County, was on hand to research CATCH because CHF strongly is considering sponsoring a CATCH program in Chester.
Healthy eating means business
Terry Vickers with the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce has been working on grant funding to start a Certified SC Grown Farmer’s Market in Winnsboro. If the project goes through, the market would be SNAP and WIC certified.
“I am amazed at the CATCH program. One thing the Chamber will do this year is to have a certified Farmer’s Market which our CATCH children can come and sell fruits and vegetables. This is an education process for all of us,” Vickers said.
The CATCH program is an important aspect of the grant proposal because of the school gardens throughout the district. Students would have the opportunity at the Farmer’s Market to sell the produce raised at the school to help fund the CATCH program.
This hands-on entrepreneurial learning experience would give the students a greater appreciation for work ethic and providing a service to the public, but the main benefit from the program would be providing yet another avenue to get healthy fruits and vegetables into the hands of people in the county who might not otherwise be able to afford those foods, which often cost more than processed foods or junk food that is less nutritious.
Parental involvement is a major goal for CATCH and school wide events like annual CATCH nights that feature Zumba, line dancing, taste tests, and in the past have included juicing. Children are encouraged to ask to try healthy foods when at the grocery store or when a parent asks them what they would like to have for dinner.
These nights and doing things like giving each child a water bottle as a Christmas gift to remind them to consume more water and less sugary drinks over the holidays are other subtle ways of helping promote a culture change.
According to CATCH coordinator at FMSM Michael Murdaugh “There are alternative ways we share with our parents about healthier eating habits. We talk about different ways to cook foods, maybe grill chicken instead of fried or broiled fish. We encourage them to keep kids active and put more fruits and vegetables on their plates.”
Professionals from the Fairfield County Diabetes Center, the Fairfield County Health Department, the Chester Health Foundation,the principals of Lewisville Elementary and Great Falls Elementary, staff from Winthrop University, as well as the State Department of Education and the John A Martin Primary Care Center helped make the event a success, but the real measure of CATCH will be in the BMIs of these children and of their parents when these young students complete high school.
By then, it is hoped a generational change will be taking place to help improve the overall health of Fairfield County and the state and nation.