Foodies are familiar with slow food (the ideal eats that are the opposite of fast food), but to kids in a new health education program the term has an entirely different meaning.

Members of the South Portland Boys & Girls Club participating this summer in the CATCH Healthy Habits program have learned that slow food means approach with caution. (CATCH stands for Coordinated Approach to Child Health.)

The 12 children taking part in the program, aimed at curbing childhood obesity by teaching basic nutrition lessons and encouraging exercise, now know how to identify “go” foods, “slow” foods and “whoa” foods.

Go foods are things like fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains that should be eaten all the time.

Slow foods contain moderate amounts of salt, fat or sugar and should be eaten only occasionally.

And whoa foods are highly processed foods that contain lots of salt, fat or sugar and should only be eaten rarely.

When program coordinator Sharon Schulberger, who works for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, shows the kids a picture of bacon and asks them what kind of food it is, they all yell, “Whoa!”

The bacon picture was part of the nutrition lesson the day I visited. Schulberger walked the students through an exercise about healthy versus unhealthy fats. Before starting, she explained that healthy fats are liquid at room temperature and from plant sources, while unhealthy fats are solid at room temperature and most often from animal sources.

“You have to have fat in your diet,” Schulberger told the children, “because that helps your body do things that keep you healthy.”

The kids categorized peanut butter as a go food, hydrogenated vegetable oil as a whoa food and non-stick cooking spray as a go food.

When Schulberger held up a photo of butter and asked if it came from an animal or a plant, Jacob Piechowski, 9, said, “Butter is dairy, and dairy comes from cows.”

Schulberger then talked with the students about margarine.

“Margarine is from plants, but they process it to make it hard,” Schulberger said. “It’s not the healthiest choice. When they process it, they do something that makes it less healthy.”

Olive oil and canola oil were discussed as better choices.

Before the lesson, the children munched on a snack of cut vegetables and ranch dip.

“It was really good,” said Rain Jordan, 6. “I haven’t tried mushrooms regularly, but I like mushrooms with carrots and celery. I liked the tomatoes. Certain types of tomatoes I have had and don’t like. I think all of the snacks are really good.”

The program was developed by the national OASIS Institute with funding from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation. In addition to reversing the trend of childhood obesity, the program aims to engage adults ages 50 and older in their communities by volunteering for the program.

Volunteer Genesta Berry prepared the snack that day for the children. After the nutrition lesson, she helped the other volunteers lead the kids in a noncompetitive parachute game.

“The food they’re eating today ties to the lesson, and the exercise coordinates to how many calories they’ve eaten,” Berry said. “It’s a well-designed program, and the kids respond to it.”

This year, the program won the Maine Fitness Award from the Governor’s Council on Physical Activity.

The program has also been implemented at Canal Elementary School in Westbrook, Skillin Elementary School in South Portland and through the South Portland Recreation department.

The OASIS Institute developed the program in 2006, and the Southern Maine Agency on Aging brought it to Maine last fall. Tailored for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, the program is now in 18 cities in 14 states.

So far, 3,575 children have participated in the program nationwide, including 105 in Maine. Program organizers hope to partner with additional Maine schools and community organizations to offer the CATCH program this fall. They are also seeking people ages 50 and over to volunteer for the program.

Survey data of the older children in the program show that 93 percent reported learning something new about health. In addition, the kids showed a 14 percent increase in reading food labels, and the amount of kids eating three or more fruits per day increased by 9 percent.

Peter Holtgrave, who is the national health manager for the OASIS Institute, said, “We know the program is working and successful for both older adults and kids.”


Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila