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Local Educators - And An Olympian - Combat Childhood Obesity

Thursday morning, hundreds of students in hundreds of sweat bands bobbed and clapped along to “Gangnam Style” as they prepared for a 200-meter warm-up in the Carter G. Woodson Elementary auditorium.

“Are you guys ready to run,” a special guest clad in Team USA colors asked.

“Yeah,” about 600 voices responded.

It’s not every morning you get to warm-up with an Olympic silver medalist. But the kids of Woodson got the chance that morning.  

“Alright stand with me,” instructed 2008 Olympic heptathlete Hyleas Fountain.

The special morning for the students was the prize for winning the district’s first GoNoodle “Be a Champ” contest, which challenged 26 Duval County schools to get physically active in the classroom. The competition began in mid-January with Woodson finishing on top with 81,000 minutes.

The contest is part of an initiative through interactive classroom resource company GoNoodle sponsored by St. Vincent's Healthcare, Florida Blue and CSX to combat childhood obesity and diabetes.

“You know a lot of the health-related diseases that we develop as adults start when their children , so we’re trying to make sure that they understand at an early age that fitness and the things that they eat all go together,” said Woodson Elementary principal Cheryl Quarles-Gaston.

The day comes on the heels of news that obesity in young American children is on the decline. A study published Tuesday in Journal of the American Medical Association found that obesity among children ages 2 to 5 years old decreased from 14 percent to 8 percent over the last decade.

In Florida, obesity among low-income preschoolers has also declined, but just slightly. The state Department of Health says from 2008 to 2011 obesity dropped just one percent in two through four-year-olds from 14 percent to 13 percent.  

While the needle is moving slowly, it’s moving in the right direction said Dr. Kelli Wells, director of the state health department in Duval County.

“More than anything, I think is recognizing that we have successfully raised the awareness of the community and individuals at large regarding how important this is,” she said.    

Over the years, the department has partnered with Duval Schools and other community organizations to launch local initiatives in place such as Healthy Kids, Healthy Jacksonville.

“We’ve actually been doing this work for a number of years and recognize that it is a significant impact for the community,” Wells said.

The district has also taken steps to improve the quality of food being provided to its students, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. The district entered into a new contract with Chartwells Dining Services to provide students with more nutrition and fewer calories and sodium.

“Reducing the amount of calories that the kids can intake with every meal, ensuring that more kids are eating breakfast everyday,” he said. “They are eating less saturated fats, more whole foods... that was a major shift for us as an organization.”

And a shift toward better nutrition and more physical activity is particularly important for students in the high-poverty area, said Woodson principal Quarles-Gaston. Ninety-eight percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and many of their daily meals are provided by the school, she said.

“A lot of them have family members that have diabetes or high blood pressure,” she said.  “So we’re trying to make them understand that you have to be physically active and you have to eat the right foods, so that you won’t develop those painstaking diseases later in life.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.