The problem. Unhealthy eating behaviors, in part, have contributed to the alarming rates of obesity in the U.S., however little success has been seen in programming which aims to improve food choices, a problem that is exacerbated in communities in which there is little access to healthy food choices but which abounds with unhealthy “fast food”.
A solution. With this in mind, we developed a school-based program in New York City to teach preadolescents (8-11 year olds) how to make healthier food choices in an obesogenic environment, complementing the efforts of the 2006 New York City menu-board calorie labeling laws. The program uses age- and culturally-relevant, multimedia materials designed to engage children, to teach them how to make healthier food choices in a manner that is acceptable by them. An important aspect of the education is that the children are encouraged to go home and teach their parents what they have learned, and are provided specific skills and materials necessary to do so.
Program strategy. Our school- and summer camp- based programming uses successful food marketing strategies to provide children with the skills and motivation necessary to engage in healthier food consumption by teaching them basic consumer literacy and dietary decision-making skills using interventional strategies that are designed both to educate and motivate. These techniques are well documented in the marketing literature, but have not been applied to programming strategies such as we have.
A second important innovation concerns the generalizability and sustainability of the program goals: The program, which is directed at the children, builds in child-parent communication modules, to provide the preadolescent with the tools to be able to approach and successfully educate the parent or parents about calories and healthier food choices. It is important to note that the program is designed to be neutral in terms of the costs of better choices, both financial and in terms of the convenience of the parent, who often lacks sufficient time and resources to supervise their children’s food purchasing habits.
Child engagement. Our focus is on the sustainability of the behaviors we hope to teach and motivate. To this end, it is crucial that the children not regard the program as simply more homework, or just another set of lectures; rather, they must be engaged, active participants, excited by the program. Program methods include the use of interactive computer games, animated cartoons, and Hip Hop songs, all designed to “prime” eating behaviors of children by making healthy eating culturally relevant (in other words “cool”), along with specific strategies for influencing parental food-purchasing behavior. The overall program has been positively framed around five elements of Hip Hop culture; “MCing, Beatboxing, DJing, Bboying and Overstanding (empowerment through knowledge)”. Each module was developed in collaboration with Nutrition and Public