A Foundation of Healthy Eating Habits

Rachel Newcomb’s anthropology course teams up with Nemours to Teach Healthy Eating Habits to Preschoolers.

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Photo by Scott Cook.

By the time American kids reach age five, 20 percent of them are overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that percentage will continue to increase with age, with 35.9 percent of adults considered to be obese. Those are alarming statistics Jessica Mills hopes to change—and she’s starting with three-year-olds.

“The theory is that if we can teach children to have better eating habits earlier in life, it will be easier to practice them later,” said Mills, the program and policy analyst for Nemours’ Florida prevention initiative. “We are essentially trying to get good eating habits started early.”

This year, the Nemours’ Healthy Habits program received a $90,000 grant from the Winter Park Health Foundation, a $40,000 increase from the 2011 grant they received. The money is used to create and disseminate food and fitness teaching tools to area preschools in Winter Park, Eatonville, and Maitland.

But Mills also relies on community partners and volunteers to help work directly with the preschools to deliver the healthy habits training program. That’s where Associate Professor of Anthropology Rachel Newcomb’s senior seminar class comes in.

When Newcomb received word that Nemours was looking for program volunteers, she immediately saw synchronicity with her course in applied anthropology.

“This fall, we’re studying the cultural reasons for obesity. A lot of it stems from the fact that we that we live in an environment where it’s become impossible not to gain weight,” Newcomb said. “Having my students meet with the preschoolers and school directors gives them the chance to conduct fieldwork and gain first-hand experience on the topic.”

Each of Newcomb’s seven students have each been assigned a school, which they will visit five or six times over the course of the semester. After completing the program training, they begin teaching healthy habits messages with students, and sharing resources with school administrators and parents. Along the way, students are reporting back to Mills about the effectiveness of the program and sharing their insights in Newcomb’s class.

“They are going to the sites and finding out how teacher and directors are using the materials, determining if they need additional support, also working at the director level to determine what wellness policies they have in place, how they are engaging families, and communicating those policies to families,” Mills said.

“From an anthropological standpoint, working on a community engagement project is the best way to gain insight to a cultural issue,” said TJ Fisher ’13, Newcomb’s student. “By engaging the public in education, while simultaneously gathering information about how to improve the project, I am taking everything I have learned in my college career and applying it in a tangible way.”

All in all, the program will touch more than 600 students in the area; Rollins students are working with approximately 140 of those.

Results from the 2011 study have already been positive. “75 percent of children are in a childcare setting at least some portion of the day—that’s 12 million nationally,” Mills said. “We know that if we can make policy and behavior changes at preschool level, we can start making a change. This is one of the places where prevention needs to start.”

“It’s a win-win for all involved,” Newcomb said. “Our students get a great learning experience and we help them get this important work done.”