All the children gathered around Ms. Yvonne for their first taste of kiwi fruit. “If you like it, rub your tummy and say ‘I LIKE IT!’” Ms. Yvonne told them. “If you don’t, stick your tongue out and say, ‘YUCK!’” Precious followed Ms. Yvonne around for the rest of the hour, saying “I LOVE IT!” It was the beginning of a special friendship.
Strong friendships and healthy foods are at the essence of Five & Fit, a program started in 2008 by the Intergenerational Center of Temple University in Philadelphia. The program came about when the Intergenerational Center’s director, Dr. Andrea Taylor, discovered that sugary soft drinks and potato chips were often typical breakfast foods for many Philadelphia preschoolers.
“It made me wonder: if they were eating such calorie-dense, nutrient-lite ’foods’ early in the morning, what were they having for lunch and dinner?” Andrea says.
She knew that unless something changed, these young children – and others to come – wouldn’t get the nutrition they needed to excel. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a poor diet can lead to obesity even among pre-schoolers. In fact, nearly a third of low-income preschoolers in the U.S. are overweight or obese. The CDC reports that obese children are more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Andrea was determined to help turn the situation around for Philadelphia’s young children. “For the program to succeed, we needed to involve parents, family members and formal caregivers, and help them change their own behaviors with regard to healthy food choices and regular exercise, Andrea notes. “We decided the best way to do that would be to engage older adults.
“By mobilizing older adults to influence the circle of caregivers that surround young
children, it becomes a win-win situation for all,” Andrea explains. “We reach young children during this very narrow window that shapes their relationship with food for the rest of their lives, and older participants have the opportunity to change the trajectory of young people within their community.”
Guided by the University's Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), Andrea created Five & Fit to teach preschoolers about healthy food choices and offer fun ways to increase their activity levels. Yvonne Thompson-Friend, who serves as program coordinator, says Five & Fit concentrates its resources in two low-income areas where children face greater nutrition challenges.
“One is heavily Latino, the other is primarily African-American. In these communities, wisdom from elders is held in very high esteem, says Yvonne. “Many of the young mothers need help or support in learning to shop for and cook with healthy foods. The older adults act as a kind of surrogate grandparent, drawing on their own experience raising children to provide valuable tips for young parents on how to encourage children to eat healthy and get active.
“We adapt our activities to address the specific cultural backgrounds of each site’s student population. For one of our events in the Latino neighborhood we walked around the town square with festive and lively music that brought out entire community. Everyone enjoyed themselves, danced and learned about healthy eating.
“We got all ages involved at the African-American site as well. Teens came in and cleared an area for healthy planting, older adults helped children plant individual seedlings in the new garden, and when the plants were harvested, everyone in the community shared the bounty.”
“The program has benefited everyone,” Yvonne says. “Children are eating new fruits and vegetables and asking that these foods be served at home. Parents have discovered that their children are open to trying new foods and actually prefer many healthy alternatives over less nutritious food. The parents are also grateful that their children’s teachers are making nutrition and activity a priority, and for the older adults who are building relationships with their children.”
Dr. Andrea Taylor adds, “The teachers themselves have a better understanding of what prevents or reduces obesity specifically for pre-school age children. They enjoy incorporating Fit & Five ideas and activities into their lesson plans and love knowing that the children are excited about the program and enjoy learning from the older volunteers. The teachers think of the Fit & Five staff and volunteers as their allies in promoting important changes in the community.
“As for the older adult volunteers, working with the young children has given them a new outlook, and they’ve become effective children’s advocates. Many are improving their own eating habits and exercising more.”
Photos courtesy Yvonne Thompson-Friend and the Intergenerational Center of Temple University
For more stories about hunger and nutrition across the generations, download Hunger and Nutrition in America: What's at Stake for Children, Families and Older Adults