Grand Rapids Kroc Center fights childhood obesity

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Families set a goal each week toward healthy living and find support from mentors.

By Jeff Johnston –

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Patricia Ansari, who participated in Fit Kids 360 with her daughters age 9 and 5, huddles up with a group participating in a summer fitness program at the Kroc Center.

Somewhere out there, a kid who used to sit on the couch is working up a sweat outside. That’s a win. And if that kid later reaches for a water instead of a sugary sports drink, double win.

For years, America’s childhood obesity epidemic has had people talking.

Now, in Grand Rapids, Mich., and beyond, it has people acting.

At The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, hundreds of families since 2012 have gathered for Fit Kids 360—a series of eight-week sessions to stretch their minds and bodies toward physical fitness.

“You see people happy and excited and feeling good about themselves,” said Heidi Roberts, Kroc Center education manager. She heads up the center’s effort—booking instructors, planning sessions, coordinating volunteers—but it didn’t begin with her.

In 2010, local Kent County health care providers including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Forest Hills Pediatric Associates and First Steps Kent got together, determined to help area children at risk of obesity.

Any solution would need to reach entire families, be free of charge and address more than just weight loss.

What they came up with was a two-hour-a-week program of activity and education supported by professionals like a dietitian, a behavioral health expert and an exercise specialist. Each weekly session would include 30 minutes of physical activity. At the end of eight weeks there would be a celebration.

The Kroc Center, brand new in 2010, was approached in 2011 to host Fit Kids 360. Today it’s the largest of a handful of West Michigan facilities offering the program, which has spread across the state to the Detroit area, and to South Bend, Ind., where another Kroc Center welcomes participants.

The program is prescribed by pediatricians for families with at least one child age 5 to 16 whose body mass index (BMI) falls above the 85th percentile for his or her age. Grant money and Salvation Army funds support the program at the Kroc Center. HealthNet of West Michigan, a nonprofit health advocacy group formed in 2014, coordinates the local Fit Kids 360 programs.

Each session accommodates about 20 families, and each family is paired with a mentor, often a college student volunteer.

Families set a goal each week—to exercise a set amount, eat a certain number of vegetable servings, or maybe just to eat dinner together—and mentors encourage and support them.

Programs run January to March, April to June and September to November, and the sessions focus not only on physical activity but on how to choose healthy foods, build self-esteem and cope with risk factors such as bullying and stress. In the summertime, the Kroc Center hosts a related exercise-only program that culminates in a 5K run.

Roberts said for some parents whose work schedules make it hard to connect with their kids, the program becomes dedicated family time.

She’s proud to say 70 to 80 percent of families make it through all eight weeks, a retention rate “pretty unheard of” among similar programs, which retain around 50 percent. In her view, Fit Kids 360 is a good experience for 100 percent of families.

“It’s so positive,” she said. “They don’t feel judged.”

That’s important. Emphasis on weight can leave participants feeling shamed instead of motivated.

Kids are weighed before and after to help assess the program’s efficacy, but “we do it in kilograms, so the kids don’t even know what it means,” Roberts said. The numbers don’t always drop, but before-and-after family surveys for healthy habits and quality of life show progress.

“I think a lot of our families have gotten a lot of bad information through the years about health,” Roberts said. Ads featuring star athletes, for example, lead kids to think a sports drink is the best way to rehydrate, when in fact water is all the body needs.

The biggest challenge for families is “to go home and practice what we teach in the classes,” said Julia Steinhardt, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who teaches the Fit Kids 360 nutrition curriculum at the Kroc Center. She works with parents and kids to build strong habits of meal planning and grocery shopping—and fighting the time-saving temptation of the fast-food window.

The good news—it works. Roberts is reminded of this whenever she sees families who went through Fit Kids 360 out in the community: “They’re excited to tell me about the ways that they’re healthier.”

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