How Do You Eat a Rainbow?
By Mary Ellen Flannery
Ask the kids at Broadview Middle School, who learned the health benefits of dipping into a raucous spectrum of fruits and vegetables during last year’s “Have Fun, Stay Fit” event—brought to them by the Western Connecticut State University Education Club.
WCSU junior Tim Nott—the club’s president and the 2013 winner of the NEA Student Program’s Most Outstanding Local Leader award—and vice president Phoenix Dudley strapped on running shoes, stocked up on berries and bananas, and stormed the middle school’s Darien, Conn., campus with an uplifting goal: to help sixth graders get healthy. “Childhood obesity is such an epidemic in this country—and we wanted to do something about it,” says Nott.
Education Club members created a high-energy plan to bring fun, educational, health-related, after-school activities to young adolescents at a local school, and then won a $1,000 NEA Student Program CLASS grant to get it done.
For three decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. obesity rates have more than doubled for children ages 6 to 11, and tripled for adolescents ages 12 to 19. In the short term, those young people run a significant risk of developing prediabetes, bone and joint ailments, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems. As adults, they’re at greater risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and several kinds of cancer, including breast, colon, and kidney.
But the CDC also notes that “healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.” Healthy habits are exactly what WCSU’s Education Club aimed to develop among Broadview’s sixth graders—a racially diverse group of students, of which about 40 percent are poor or low-income. Nott and his peers understood that the dietary and physical activity of these sixth graders could be influenced—and they wanted to provide an environment that would support more healthy behaviors.
How does that environment look? Well, if you had peeked into the middle school’s gymnasium that spring afternoon, you might have seen lines of Zumba dancers dressed in baggy shorts or tight yoga pants, pointing their toes, clapping their hands, and raising their knees toward the basketball hoop. And you might have seen Education Club vice president Dudley leading kids in a game of her own design: the Choose MyPlate Relay Race, where preteens like Jazzlyn and Lia scurried to build balanced meal plates of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains.
More than 100 participants sipped on purple smoothies made of blueberries and milk, and orange smoothies with peaches and bananas. Then they voted on their favorite colors of the blended rainbow. At the end of the day, after an energetic round of a highly competitive, health-related Jeopardy-style game show, the students took home recipe booklets of healthy snacks.
“With so many parents working and maybe not able to take the time to cook the way they’d like to, we know we have to make it easier for parents and students to be healthy. We wanted them to be able to bring home information, so that everybody can learn how easy and fun it can be to live a healthy lifestyle,” says Nott, an elementary education major who hopes someday to work with special-education students.
In addition to leading the “Have Fun, Stay Fit” event, Nott also coordinated the WCSU Box Tops for Education drive. From students, parents of students, WCSU faculty, and faculty members’ parents, children, siblings, and other family members, WCSU’s Education Club collected more than 2,500 box tops. Worth cash from the Box Tops program, the fundraising chits were offered to Sandy Hook Elementary, which is located a few miles from WCSU, and in 2012 became the site of a tragic shooting.
With these kinds of projects, which help Nott’s peers to interact with local schools in meaningful ways, a growing number of education majors at WCSU see the NEA Student Program as a place where college students can get practical experience and “interact with their future career,” as Nott puts it. Last year, the number of members in the Education Club grew by more than 80. “The members and officers in this club will be tomorrow’s teachers,” says Heather Feenan, the club’s public relations officer. “And the opportunity to work with students in this capacity is a priceless learning opportunity.”
What is a CLASS Grant?
CLASS stands for Community Learning Through America’s Schools. These NEA Student Program grants (for up to $1,000 each) are available to NEA Student Programs that design projects that meet community needs, and recognize the connection between what happens in communities and what happens in classrooms. Since 1989, thousands of NEA Student members have participated in CLASS-funded projects, ranging from school renovation projects to environmental education programs to new after-school activities.