Go!Healthy Eat Smart New York: Promoting Health Beyond the Classroom

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By Kathleen Delgado and Kyle Murray, Go!Healthy Nutritionists

In 2003, The Children’s Aid Society’s Health and Wellness Division launched Go!Healthy, a comprehensive wellness strategy aimed at preventing childhood obesity in our community schools and centers. Using a three-pronged approach, the program educates children, parents, and staff about healthy eating and wellness habits; promotes healthy choices by providing tasty and nutritious food options within our sites; and engages children, parents, and staff in advocacy opportunities so they can become champions for healthy communities.

An important new chapter to this effort began in April 2015 with the launch of the Go!Healthy Eat Smart New York (GHESNY) Program, an even more holistic strategy that addresses environmental factors affecting a community’s well-being. Funded through a five-year, $2.3 million nutrition education grant from New York State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), GHESNY operates in 11 Children’s Aid community schools and centers across the Bronx, Washington Heights, Harlem, and northern Staten Island. Each site hosts a Go!Healthy nutritionist who employs a strength-based approach to meet the needs of the community within a culturally relevant framework.

Many wellness programs focus on weight loss and fitness. However, GHESNY goes beyond by helping participants make the connection between nutrition and daily living while creating opportunities to make healthier lifestyle choices. From the start, the initiative has offered a variety of popular hands-on nutrition and cooking activities:

  • Classes for youth enrolled in after-school programs
  • Workshops for parents and caregivers
  • Activities for staff

Workshops and classes are conducted in English and Spanish by Go!Healthy nutritionists, all whom bring a wealth of experience in community health education. In each session, attendees engage in the preparation of a fresh fruit or vegetable recipe, using seasonal crops. When participants settle in to savor their creation, the nutritionist leads a discussion on healthy eating and food’s connection to their surroundings, and about cultural dishes and diets. Though Go!Healthy employs specific curricula for implementing youth and adult education, the presence of an expert nutritionist, sensitive to the community’s reality, allows participants’ perspectives and challenges to guide the conversation around the topic of the day.

Go!Healthy parent classes examine contemporary food issues and explore practical solutions for how to address barriers and foster holistic wellness behaviors. Participants learn to estimate appropriate portion sizes using their hands; assess the true value of “nutrition impostors” like sugar-sweetened fruit punches and then determine healthier beverage choices; and explore ways to include more fruits and vegetables in their meals and their snacks, on budget.

To engage the larger community around health and wellness, the program promotes the formation of health ambassador committees that include students, parents, staff, formal/non-formal community leaders, and professionals. These wellness committees serve as an advisory to support the culture of health beyond the walls of the classroom.

Formal community leaders include program directors, school administrators, health professionals, and student leaders. These formal leaders are essential to the effectiveness of wellness committees, as they contribute their expertise on the health needs of the community.

Along these lines, non-formal community leaders, including parents, guardians, support staff, cooks, and custodians, are equally essential in building communities that are ready to identify and adopt healthy behaviors. We need informal leaders to ensure health needs of the greater community are met through culturally relevant approaches.

In their infancy, wellness committees are being grown at three Children’s Aid sites: C.S. 61 in the Bronx, P.S. 5 in Washington Heights, and P.S. 50 in East Harlem. Our goal is to establish committees across all sites, to strengthen the promising Go!Healthy Eat Smart NY Program.

Controlling the obesity epidemic will take a long-term, all-hands-on-deck approach. Close collaboration between families, schools, health professionals, communities, and government is needed to help all children—no matter their background--live longer and healthier lives. There is no quick fix. However, the holistic nature of community schools can only help.