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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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HealthCorps: Teaching Kids About Healthy Eating and Avoiding Obesity

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

Every day, the consequences of our children's poor eating habits and lack of exercise and fitness is displayed in our schools. They are held back in their academics and extracurricular activities because they lack energy, concentration, stamina, comfort, agility, and self-confidence.

But the greatest price has yet to be paid, in the form of increased risk for a host of physical conditions, from obesity to diabetes to heart disease.

How Significant is This Issue?

For one, this is a social-emotional and character-development (SECD) issue. Schools influence students' eating habits and attitudes about health, fitness, and food. Schools also can influence parent attitudes and behaviors. Good health is an interpersonal endeavor, and standing up to negative peer pressure in order to make healthy choices requires strong SECD competencies.

Communications Director Amy Baron of HealthCorps believes:


Enter HealthCorps. Founded by the well-known Dr. Mehmet Oz, HealthCorps' mission is to activate American students and their families to become health agents of change in their communities. While you may know Dr. Oz as the host of the Daytime Emmy-nominated nationally syndicated talk show, "The Dr. Oz Show," and the author of popular books on health and fitness, he is also Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center.

In 2003, he conceived HealthCorps after finding himself operating on patients in their twenties who were in need of heart surgery due to poor lifestyle choices. He set out to save a generation of youth from sustaining shorter life spans than those of their parents.

How Does HealthCorps Work?

HealthCorps coordinators are the heart of program. "These recent college graduates defer entry into medical school or graduate health programs to participate in public service through a two-year full time assignment at a designated public high school," explained Dr. Barone. "They conduct approximately ten classes a week and lead after school and community programs."

Health coordinators in high schools across the country act as mentors in the schools. They also function as classroom educators, health boosters, and confidantes. According to Dr. Barone, "Most importantly, coordinators help enhance the mental resilience of teens who are barraged by food choices, electronic toys that discourage them from outdoor play, and modern-day stresses exasperated by family problems, cultural issues, and poverty."

HealthCorps also challenges faculty to practice the health messages they preach, and urges school food staff to increase healthy eating options as a matter of pride and public health.

In three Palm Beach County high schools, thanks to the efforts of HealthCorps coordinators, students have more healthy lunch options each day, such as turkey wrap with tomato basil, buffalo chicken salad, yogurt, and fresh fruits.

HealthCorps reaches community residents of all ages through Highway to Health Festivals that include free health screenings, nutritious food and beverage samples, fitness workouts -- everything from Zumba Latin dance to yoga and martial arts, live entertainment, games and giveaways. And of course, there is Dr. Oz's visible presence on television and print media.

What Can Teachers Do?

For those of us working in schools, it's good to know that HealthCorps works in very SECD-informed ways. They are developing a curriculum on nutrition, fitness, and mental resilience that is informed by the best of SECD pedagogy.

HealthCorps Coordinators' efforts are guided by the School Health Index (SHI) -- a tool developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and compiled by a School Wellness Task Force comprised of students, faculty, and community members.

I have only scratched the surface of what HealthCorps is doing in schools, workplaces, and communities to apply SECD and related concepts to the national crisis of overeating and excessive weight. There is much more information at the Web site. I think it's noteworthy that in Dr. Oz, HealthCorps has an appealing focal leader and central communicator with knowledge and credibility to help galvanize public attention and interest.

Those of us working in schools should take seriously the strong connection of SECD and eating and seek to connect these ideas in our schools at every opportunity. If you have been doing so, please share your comments here so we can learn from your experience!

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Barone's picture

We target underserved communities with our unique initiative. The schools where the HealthCorps curriculum is established do not pay for the program; we only ask that they support our efforts by working closely with our Coordinators to most effectively integrate HealthCorps into their institution. Thirty percent of the HealthCorps 2009-10 program budget comes from state and local government. The program in New Jersey has become fully funded by the New Jersey Department of Health & Senior Services. The balance of 2009-10 program funding comes from foundation and corporate sponsors, including Apollo Group, Asplundh Foundation, Canyon Ranch Institute, Cleveland Clinic, Kellogg Foundation (which funded HealthCorps' launch in Mississippi), and Palm Healthcare.

Bridget OConnor's picture

Wow, thank you for sharing this information. I would definitely have to agree that it is very generous and thoughtful of Dr. Oz to use his popularity and knowledge to help control this epidemic. HealthCorps sounds like a great opportunity and experience for both the high school students as well as the health coordinators. I applaud the efforts of everyone involved and feel confident that this program is positively affecting countless people. Thank you for sharing this information, I am looking forward to doing more research about this organization.

Lisa B's picture

I completely agree that our school and it's community needs to be educated on how to make healthy food choices. I do believe that once they learn these skills they can use this tool in making other life decisions. I noticed in "kwaidelich" the HealthCorps program is $75,000. I have an understanding of my school's financial situation but I am sure I do not know it all but I am sure $75,000 is a little too much at this time for our school to spend unless there was a grant available. I see no reason why the Physical Education teacher, Health teacher, Foods or Family Consumer Science teacher and school nurse could not come up with some sort of curriculum for students and news letters/meetings for students, parents and community leaders. This information could also be spread through the staff so we could be practicing what we are preaching and they too can teach their students and children about living a healthy lifestyle.

Kimberly Simmons's picture

I work in a Title One school in Miami and we are currently working to help students and families tackle this issue with activities like support groups for overweight students (with visits from a certified nutritionist) and workshops that include familiarizing families with the www.mypyramid.org (a great resource for children and adults alike) website. We also have received some grant monies through initiatives like www.healthiergeneration.org and even got pedometers to increase and monitor physical activities among students and faculty. Most families want to make healthier choices, but lack the knowledge and resources to do so. As an educator who was always a "little chubby" as a child, I know the self-esteem issues that can result from being overweight. We even have a full time nurse on staff to address some of the medical issues like immunizations and minor injuries. I don't know what some of the families at my school will do if funding for her position runs out because she is the only health official that many of our students see. That's why I took it as a personal challenge to help students at my school. I think helping students make changes now will benefit them far into adulthood.

Amary's picture

I work in an area where most families are of low socioeconomic status and struggle to put food on the table every night. To many of our parents healthy foods are an expensive luxury that they simply cannot afford. One can argue that vegetables and fruits can be grown, but with most of our families living in crammed apartments, container gardens and the costs associated with them are simply not an option. While we are attempting to promote healthy eating at our school and have stated a container garden with students who volunteered for the project, few parents attended informational workshops regarding the garden and healthy eating. Last year we purchased pedometers for our school in an effort to promote exercising since most of our students walk home. Our school simply cannot afford to spend $75,000 since we are fighting to keep teachers and stretch our funds for the upcoming school year. Does HealthCorps provide any kind of grant to struggling schools?

JJung's picture

Dr. Oz and all of the HealthCorps coordinators are to be commended for their dedication to the fight against childhood obesity. I think his program is a wonderful piece of the puzzle for helping kids make better health and eating choices. I think more ground would be gained in this battle if more programs focused on educating parents. I am a third grade teacher and it is appalling to see how many young kids are overweight and out of shape. There is no way these students could be in this bad of shape without parents and guardians providing them with the food that is harming them. Parents need to learn how to cook and eat healthier so that their kids will grow up with those skills. I agree that eating healthy can be costly but parents could afford a bunch of bananas for a snack as opposed to a bag of chips. I think parents, armed with the proper information, can use the same budget to buy and prepare healthy meals. I would like to see more programs aimed at adult education in addition to the programs targeted toward children.

Richard's picture

Many of the comments were made about high cost of health food. What is health food? Eggs, Chicken, Fish, Fruits & Veggies? These do not have to be high cost items if more people would buy them. The fact is its cheaper and more profitable right now to keep the junk foods rolling.
Getting the "Best" foods I can is no easy task but well worth it. Also the best whole food supplement I ever found http://nurichepresentation.com but even before that it was farm fresh or market fresh (Which is the best).

Alberta Guralczyk's picture

I teach in a small community in a rural area in Michigan. We began a program for our school called PENUTs and it is quite helpful in delivering messages by the principal in the morning to activities as mini-breaks in the classroom that get kids moving. We send informative notes home once a month for school to home connection. Our school was visited by a representative four different time in the year with a new snack to try, upper elementary grades were allowed to make their own. I feel this experience helped to encourage students to just try healthier snacks.I model at snack time with a eating a piece of fruit, cup of low-fat yogurt or granola bar. I always have a tub of healthy snack spares for the many who don't bring one in each day.
One concern my colleagues and I noticed is that a lot of our children are getting free breakfast and lunches. this is wonderful, but what they are offered is not always the best items, for example chocolate pop tarts. We are trying as a community to express offering better foods that are lower in additives and sugar but, we are made aware that it boils down to limited funds.
Our school is working on adding more gym time, too. In oue
Kindergarten grade-level we had our students going two days for 20 minutes and one day for 45 minutes. I look forward to adding more time as a twenty minute recess period just isn't enough exercise for any grade.

Melissa Cagle's picture

I agree that what Dr. Oz is doing is a wonderful thing. Many of the comments involve the high cost of such a program. What about the lunch room in the schools? The fruits that are served in the cafeteria is covered in syrup. The vegetables are from a can and usually high in sodium. The protein is usually crusted in a carbohydrate laden cover. I believe that many kids would eat fresh fruit, vegetables and yogurt if they were offered. The only thing served as a drink in schools should be 2% or low-fat white milk.I can't believe how many schools allow children to have access to vending machines that offer soda and candy as an alternative to lunch. I think that many children would benefit if the lunchroom provided healthy alternatives!

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