KOKOMO, Ind. — Even the pickiest eater might try a radish, if there is a sticker to be earned for it.
Children at the Indiana University Kokomo Fit Camp literally tasted a rainbow this week, sampling strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, pineapple, grapes, cucumbers, green peppers, broccoli, and other vegetables, to fill in a rainbow sticker chart — and learn about delicious options for healthy eating.
“They’re starting to build a good foundation for making good food choices,” said Madona Smyser, one of the School of Nursing students who served as a counselor for the annual camp. “They’ve been willing to try new choices.”
The overall goal of Fit Camp is to combat the rising obesity epidemic, by helping children establish smart food choices and healthy exercise habits at a young age.
According to a study published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 10 percent of the world’s population is now obese, leading to widespread health issues and millions of premature deaths. It noted that 12.5 percent of children in the U.S. are obese, up from 5 percent in 1980.
It’s easier to start with good habits while you are young, rather than having to break bad habits as an adult, said Lesley Connolly, lecturer of nursing and camp co-director.
“They remember what they are learning, because we make it fun,” she said. “We hope they’re going to go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned. We hope they influence their parents to make healthier choices when they’re planning meals and buying food for their families.”
While this is the 20th year the School of Nursing has hosted a summer camp, this is the first time its complete focus has been on wellness. It started as Camp Eeze-the-Wheeze, for children with asthma, and Kidds Camp, for children with diabetes, adding the Fit Camp component to teach wellness six years ago. Fewer and fewer children enrolled for asthma and diabetes instruction each year — only one camper and one junior counselor signed up this year — so those programs were incorporated into Fit Camp.
The camp boasted its largest attendance ever, with 54 children ages 6-12, four junior counselors who are young teens, nine nursing students, and Connolly and her co-director, Assistant Dean Bridget Whitmore.
Nursing students lead groups of children through daily activities at Jackson Morrow Park. Campers learned nutrition lessons using the ChooseMyPlate.gov curriculum, which guides users to building a healthy eating style, and participated in sports drills with Andy Shaffer, IU Kokomo’s athletic trainer, and campus student athletes from the volleyball, basketball, and cross country teams.
Madona, together with classmates Carla Lee and Regina Ditts, worked with about 20 of the youngest campers, focusing on one food group each day. During the session discussing grains, Madona and Regina used puppets to teach, with a green-haired puppet complaining about being grumpy because he was hungry.
“You’re hungry!” the blonde puppet said, shaking her head. “I’m not hungry. Do you boys and girls know what I ate for breakfast today?”
“Grains!” the children yelled back, and she tells them they are right, she had Cheerios with strawberries. Her puppet friend admitted he didn’t eat breakfast, and the blonde puppet asked if that is a good idea. When the children told her no, she asked them for ideas of what might be a good breakfast.
“Doughnuts!” called one boy, and Madona agreed doughnuts have grains in them, but are not the best choices, and handed out a snack of Cinnamon Chex and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Earlier in the week, Carla taught them about fruits and vegetables, and brought in a tray of samples, arranged like a rainbow. Children earned stickers to fill in their own rainbow paper, for each food they tried.
“At first they were afraid of some of them, but when they learned they could get a sticker, they were willing to try it,” Carla said. “We’re changing their eating habits, and hoping they will ask their parents to buy some of these fruits and vegetables when they go grocery shopping.”
Maggie Weber, who attends Sts. Joan of Arc and Patrick School, said the cucumbers were her favorite food, while Bryson Allen, a Maconaquah student, picked ice cream, because it is a dairy product.
Connolly said many of their campers return each year, because they have a good time while they are learning important lessons.
“Obesity is a world-wide problem,” she said. “Pediatricians are telling us we have to teach these kids how to eat well, and we need to start now.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.