In 2015, in an effort to counter the growing number of overweight school-aged children, the Indian River County Community Health Advisory Council began introducing the 5210 Let’s Go: Health Education and Wellness Program, a nationwide obesity prevention initiative originally launched in Maine in 2012 that promotes evidence-based healthy living strategies in schools. Peter Benincasa, Florida Department of Health Human Services program specialist, says the program is currently in place at 12 of the 13 area elementary schools.
The 5-2-1-0 healthier lifestyle recipe is a simple one: consume “5” or more fruits and vegetables; spend “2” hours or less on recreational screen time; get “1” hour or more of physical activity; and consume “0” sugary drinks, replacing them with water and low-fat milk.
“Childhood obesity is a big problem in Indian River County,” says Benincasa, noting that a recent Community Health Needs Assessment indicated that the rate of students at or above the 95th percentile in BMI (body mass index) had increased by nearly 3 percent from 2008 to 2012. He says there have been positive trends since the program’s introduction, including a 4 percent to 5 percent BMI decline among third-graders.
“It’s important to focus on kids before they develop any habits,” says Benincasa. “The rate of childhood obesity is above average in our community, so we wanted to take that on.”
Benincasa designs individual programs to meet each school’s needs and wants, and makes age-appropriate presentations through various class activities.
“I work with the teachers in each special area class to develop lessons and activities that tie into the standards. In art class we talk about marketing and the kids do an art project along those lines. In music I focus on physical activity. In media I teach them how to read food labels,” explains Benincasa.
A major focus is on how much sugar should be consumed, especially zeroing in on the sugar content of drinks.
“A lot of this information is new to the kids, especially the sugar stuff. They just don’t understand the concept of a gram of sugar,” he says.
To add a bit of fun, Benincasa starts each session colorfully dressed as a banana.
“The kids absolutely love the costumes. It’s a super-simple, easy hook to get them paying attention at the beginning of the program. The sillier you are, the more they listen to you for some reason.”
And, while he enjoys interacting with the children, he says one of the most rewarding aspects is hearing from parents that the lessons are making their way home.
“I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from parents saying, ‘My kid is bugging me about how many fruits and vegetables we bring into the home,’ or ‘My kid doesn’t want to go to McDonald’s anymore.’”
Fellsmere Elementary School Principal Ramon Echeverria has also seen the message spreading out to the broader community through his students.
“They are more aware of the foods they have been eating and how detrimental their choices can be to their health and their well-being,” says Echeverria. “The awareness of their eating habits is a key factor.”
On the other hand, what goes on in the home can also be a significant roadblock. “We can send kids home with all the information they need and they can try to make a positive impact on their family; but at the end of the day, it’s still the family that chooses what kinds of foods to purchase,” says Benincasa, noting that more than 90 percent of the drinks in convenience stores are sugary sodas or juices. Adding to the problem, unhealthy fast food and junk food is easier to obtain and can be less expensive.
To reach more people, Benincasa has taken the program on the road, giving presentations at community events and conducting cooking classes to teach families how to shop for and prepare healthy meals.
Recently, Moorings Yacht & Country Club Sous Chef Taylor Rye joined Benincasa for a visit to the Gifford Youth Achievement Center to teach students how to make braised chicken tacos, cilantro rice, cabbage slaw and pico de gallo. Throughout the demonstration, Rye explained the benefits of the various ingredients and gave tips on how to make any recipe healthier.
“We feel it is important that students learn healthy eating habits,” says Angelia Perry, GYAC executive director. “It is an opportunity for our students to experience preparing healthy foods, sampling those foods and seeing how important it is that a person eats healthy food; because it impacts their long-term health in ways they can’t imagine at 11, 12 and 13 years old.”
Rye says he was surprised by the students’ level of interest, adding, “The girls were intrigued by what was going on and wanted to be involved.”
After becoming a father, Rye says he reevaluated his own eating habits and subsequently lost 100 pounds. “I needed to make a change and I wanted to share what I’ve learned with other people so they can better themselves. I was eating the wrong kinds of things too often and not exercising enough. All the knowledge in the world does you no good if you are unwilling to use it.”