Kids exercise and learn when food is ‘whoa,’ ‘slow’ or ‘go!’

Yaleris Diaz, 8, raced across the gym from one Hula Hoop on the floor to another.

She arrived safely before the music stopped and looked around with a smile on her face. This exuberant game of “musical hoops” was her favorite among several she and some classmates played recently at the Burns School in Hartford.

The children also crab-walked, did backbends and pretended to be horses, galloping around the gym with several volunteers — all in their 60s.

Back bends

Volunteer David Johnston, 69, leads children from the Burns School in Hartford in a game during a program to fight childhood obesity.

The afterschool program, called “Catch Health Habits” or “Catch” for short, is more than a gym class. It is an intergenerational program designed to fight childhood obesity by encouraging healthy eating and physical activity.

Together with older adult volunteers, children play games, learn about healthy food choices and wrap up the session by making a healthy snack.

Childhood obesity is a major health concern both nationally and in Connecticut, where one in three kindergartners and third graders are overweight or obese.

Catch was started two years ago by OASIS Foundation and has spread to nine cities across the country, including Hartford starting last year. It is supported in Connecticut with a $68,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield foundation.

The eight-week program uses a national, research-based curriculum to encourage healthier eating.

During the recent session at the Burns School, volunteer David Johnston, 69, of West Hartford, acted out a story to teach the first- and second-graders about nutritional differences between “Whoa, Slow and Go” foods.

“Whoa” foods typically have a lot of salt, unhealthful fats or added sugar, such as potato chips or ice cream. “Slow” foods have some salt and less fat, and “Go” foods have little or no salt, fat or added sugar, such as fruit and vegetables.

Some of it seems to have sunk in.

“I learned that some foods make you stronger,” said Josiah Lindsay, 7.

Parents have reported that their children have encouraged them to buy more nutritious items when they go grocery shopping, said Renee Hamel, the Hartford Catch coordinator for the Community Renewal Team, which runs the program.

“With the kids, the main goal is to get them to think more critically about food intake,” Hamel said. “I have heard of kids asking their parents, ‘Why are you eating a hamburger? That’s a whoa food.’ “

Each hourlong session wraps up in the school cafeteria, where students and seniors work together to make a healthful snack, such as fruit kabobs and “Ants on a Log,” a celery stick filled with low-fat cream cheese topped with raisins.

During the recent session, the students tasted trail mix made with cereal and dried fruit. Some students tried dried cranberries for the first time — with mixed results. Some picked them out and left them on a napkin.

Besides teaching the children, the program is designed to help older volunteers by getting them to remain active, expand their social circles and, possibly, learn new skills.

“I just love meeting the little kids and telling jokes,” said Barbara Valentine, 62, of East Hartford. “I don’t have any kids myself. I have a lot of patience and it keeps me young.”

Johnston, the group leader, said he likes working with children and gets satisfaction from teaching them a life skill.

“If you can see some progress and they feel better about themselves, that’s a reward in and of itself,” he said.

The underlying goal is to address childhood obesity, which is causing health problems in children that were unimaginable decades ago, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

“The sooner you can start healthy habits the better,” said Eina G. Fishman, chief medical officer of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “We are excited to work with OASIS to bring this program to Hartford, Connecticut, because we have seen the positive difference it makes in the lives of both students and adults.”

Obesity also has an impact on local health care costs, accounting for about $856 million of adult medical expenditures in Connecticut each year.

State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Jewel Mullen has described the state’s childhood obesity rate as “alarming.” She said children who are overweight are more likely to develop serious chronic diseases at earlier ages. She has urged parents, schools, communities and policymakers to address the problem.

The legislature is currently considering forming a childhood obesity task force to address the issue.