Afterschool Programs Learning to Prevent Childhood Obesity

New Bedford Mass in Motion logo

Mass in Motion Kids has taken up the challenge of childhood obesity by targeting afterschool programs for children ages 5-12 in New Bedford and Fitchburg, MA. The pilot program aims to identify sustainable practices, policies, and strategies in afterschool programs that employ tactics such as the following:

  • Offering fruits and vegetables as snacks, versus processed foods with high levels of salt, calories and carbohydrates
  • Serving water as a beverage and prohibiting sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Incorporating 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity for each child and 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times per week
  • Eliminating commercial broadcast TV and movies, and limiting computer use to instructional and homework purposes

The program mirrors much of the curriculum of the successful Food & Fun initiative, as well as the Out-of-School Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative (OSNAP) developed in partnership with Boston Public Schools. The afterschool program recently completed its first year.

Afterschool staff members attended three learning community training sessions during the school year where they learned new skills, addressed barriers, and developed solutions for incorporating more physical activity and healthy eating opportunities.

Prior to attending the first learning community session, program administrators completed self-assessments that identified the types of snacks offered, the availability of water, and opportunities for physical activity. Seven of the programs filled out a five-day practice self-assessment, while eight filled out a policy self-assessment. The results of the assessments helped set goals and action plans for programs to be learned in the following community sessions.

“We establish a baseline before the program staff attends the first meeting,” says Harvard School of Public Health’s Katie Giles, school and afterschool coordinator for the Mass in Motion Kids project. “We knew coming in that six sites serve water during snack time. We also discovered, however, that increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables was a big struggle — as well as expensive.”

As a solution to eliminating barriers to better eating choices, Mass in Motion Kids suggested using canned or frozen fruits with no added sugar or syrup – i.e., easier, cheaper alternatives to fresh food if fresh is not available, but healthy.

Maxine Hebert, New Bedford YMCA Afterschool Director, said the first big change was to eliminate 100% juice and replace it with water. “We served our last juice box to the kids on a Friday and switched to water the following Monday. It was seamless – not a single complaint from the kids or the parents! With the money we saved by not buying juice, we could afford more fresh produce. Kids are now snacking on apples with cinnamon and even carrots with hummus.”

In follow-up training sessions, program administrators reported significant progress. They were serving fruits and vegetables as snacks more frequently to the children. They also successfully motivated the kids to engage in more physical activity. Replicating a tactic used by Food & Fun, the administrators fit the exercise into playtime and took brief physical activity breaks from classroom work.

With an encouraging inaugural year under its belt, Katie expects the program to attract more afterschool program administrators in both Fitchburg and New Bedford.

“Completing homework and improving academic skills is still an afterschool priority,” says Katie. “While this may appear to conflict with our recommendations for physical activity and healthy snacking, these small, easy to implement changes add up to big wins for children’s overall health and capacity for learning.”