The battle against childhood obesity is making headway in five Monmouth County public elementary schools thanks to a special program led by volunteers from FCS, (Family & Children’s Service), Monmouth County’s oldest private, nonprofit social service agency. Now in its fourth year, Healthy Buddies partners adult volunteers with students in the classroom, guiding them in making healthy choices by leading nutrition lessons, promoting physical activity and providing healthy snacks.
“It’s a great program,” exclaims Robert Hensle, a third grade teacher at Atlantic Highlands Elementary School, one of the five participating schools. “The students really enjoy the interaction with the adult volunteers and appreciate the group-centered dynamic. They are always happy to have their Healthy Buddies in the classroom!”
Despite some recent progress, childhood obesity rates in the U.S. remain high. Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 350,000, or 17 percent of children and adolescents in New Jersey are overweight or obese and another 16.5 percent are at risk for obesity. Developing and implementing educational programs that help prevent childhood obesity is essential to protecting and preserving the health of children in the community.
Healthy Buddies was created as part of FCS’s Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and modeled after the agency’s very successful 17-year-old Reading Buddies program. Launched in the 2012-2013 school year in two schools, Ocean Avenue Elementary in Middletown and Green Grove Elementary in Neptune, it has since expanded to three additional schools: Bradley Beach Elementary, Highlands Elementary School and Atlantic Highlands Elementary School, serving more than 230 third grade students. With funding support, FCS’ goal is to expand the program to additional schools and classrooms in the coming years.
FCS Director of Volunteer Services Samantha White says Healthy Buddies is unique in that it is the only in-school program of its kind in Monmouth County. “Most nutrition classes are delivered largely during after-school enrichment programs, putting many children at a disadvantage,” Samantha explains. “Daytime curriculum ensures that every child in the targeted grade level receives the knowledge. This is especially important to children where in families with fewer resources and less time for nutritious food planning. They bring the healthy behaviors home to the entire family.”
Healthy Buddies relies on 15 trained volunteers to carry out the program. All of Healthy Buddies volunteers receive instruction in the CATCH (Coordinated Approach To Child Health) curriculum, an evidence-based program designed to promote healthy food choices and physical activity. This is followed up with semi-annual in-service training during each school year.
Healthy Buddies volunteer Valerie Ortiz is finishing her first year with the program. She and her friend, Kim Garrity, a nutritionist, trainer and gym owner, signed up in September to volunteer together. A full-time student in Nutrition Sciences at Rutgers University, Valerie says it was a natural fit. “Coming here twice a month allows me to put into practice many of the things I am studying,” Valerie says. “It’s also a wonderful stress reliever. I don’t have any children and these students are such a pleasure to be around. I really enjoy it!”
Healthy Buddies success is measured through questionnaires administered to students at the beginning and end of each year. The assessments help determine what the students have learned about health, nutrition and exercise as it relates to obesity. To make the surveys fun, volunteers also host an end-of-year party to sample some of the nutritious foods they have talked about during the school year.
At the party at Atlantic Highlands Elementary School, one student hesitated before reaching for the raw cauliflower. “I’ve never tasted it before,” he confessed. “It looks a lot like Broccoli, only white.”
When asked how he liked it after his first bite, he replied, “Not bad.”
To learn more about FCS’s Health Buddies program, or to learn how you can volunteer to be a Healthy Buddy, call 732-222-9111 extension 153 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.