Grant to Towson Y's HeadStart program will target childhood obesity

Children in Towson's Head Start Center will soon see more movement and activity incorporated into the center's day-to-day programming.

The Y of Central Maryland, which operates the federal early childhood education program in Baltimore County, has received a $100,000 grant from Giant Food stores to bring a national anti-obesity initiative to the county's Head Start programs, including the Towson program.

The Our Family Foundation Awards grant from the Landover-based grocer will pay to bring the "I am Moving, I am Learning" program to Head Starts across Baltimore County beginning in September, said the Y of Central Maryland's senior vice president of childhood development, Christine Ader Soto.

Head Start promotes readiness before children enter school, typically accepting children from low-income families for education,health and social services. Giant's Our Family Foundation focuses on fighting hunger, improving the lives of children and building healthy communities.

Forty-three percent of Maryland kindergarten students began the 2016 school year ready to learn, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. However, 3 and 4-year-olds from low-income families have a more difficult time once they enter kindergarten, Ader Soto said, adding that the same children are also more likely to be obese.

Though the prevalence of obesity among children ages 2 to 5 nationwide decreased to 9.4 percent in the past decade, obesity rates are still higher among children from low-income families, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A CDC study among children under 5 receiving Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, a nutrition benefits program for low-income mothers, found obesity rates increased from 14 percent in 2000 to 14.5 percent in 2014 among children.

This is particularly troubling because childhood obesity has been tied to future health problems and problems with school attentiveness, Ader Soto said.

"I am Moving, I am Learning" helps teach children under 5 healthy living skills in an effort to combat childhood obesity. Children are taught to incorporate movement into classroom activities and breaks.

The program was developed in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families to prevent and reverse the negative consequences of obesity, and was piloted in 17 Head Start programs in Virginia and West Virginia.

"The program was just so successful that Head Start put it out as something other [centers] might want to incorporate," Ader Soto said of the pilot.

Other lessons include body awareness, dental hygiene, the importance of getting a good night's sleep and making good food choices. The children will then have the power to pass along such lessons to family members at home, Ader Soto said.

Employees from 44 Head Start programs in Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, including the Towson center, on Loch Raven Boulevard, will receive training in the initiative this summer with a full roll out to children expected to start in the fall.

"We're excited for the grant and committed to training kids and their families," Ader Soto said.

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