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Teaching health lessons to bring home

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Students at Meeting Street Academy learn about portion size, while Junior Doctors of Health Program Coordinator Elana Wells looks on.

Over the hum of a blender, a group of third-grade students at Meeting Street Academy hash out the merits of pineapple, blueberry and yogurt.

Taking a sip of his smoothie, one boy says, “Yogurt is still awful.” But that didn’t stop him from downing the drink.

MUSC dietetic students lead these kids – participants in the Junior Doctors of Health program – in discussions about food: how many servings of vegetables they should eat daily, what a serving size means and how to make their regular diets healthier. The dietitians explained, for example, the difference between refined wheat flour and whole wheat flour and encouraged the students to add whole grains to their meals.

One girl worked some quick math and raised her hand.

“Can’t you make a cake without flour?” she asked. When the instructors nodded in reply, she said, “Then is it a grain?”

Nice try.

Junior Doctors of Health, a childhood obesity prevention program, teaches healthy living to children in primarily low-income schools in Charleston County. MUSC Assistant Professor Dr. Scotty Buff launched the program as a graduate student eight years ago, and her idea grew to reach more schools from there.

Junior Doctors of Health relies on funding from the YES Campaign, which stands for Yearly Employee Support and encourages MUSC employees to donate toward education, patient care and research projects in need of extra cash. The program also draws on support from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Program Coordinator Elana Wells explained that military funding comes from recent research showing that some people who try to enlist are overweight, an idea known as “too fat to fight.”

Mitchell Elementary School physical education teacher Tanika White practices Tae-Bo after school.

The Junior Doctors of Health program benefits pre-school through eighth grade students, plus their teachers and parents. Thanks to a partnership with the South Carolina Area Health Education Consortium, MUSC students tote their blenders and food charts across the state to deliver their curriculum in rural schools, too.

Each class includes instructions on how to prepare a healthy snack and ends with students setting personal goals. They take printed copies of the recipes home each time, encouraged to prepare the dish again with their families.

The program includes cooking and fitness classes for teachers and parents, too. The $2,000 provided by the YES Campaign specifically pays for a parent exercise class. 

“In order to support the youths’ health, we think it’s important to offer programming for teachers and parents,” Wells said. “Teachers can be role models if these students don’t have many positive role models in their lives.”

A few Mitchell Elementary School employees gather in physical education teacher Tanika White’s classroom for an intensive half-hour workout each week. White lost 20 pounds after joining the program in 2011.

A personal trainer from the MUSC Wellness Center hooked up her iPod one recent afternoon and placed an agility rope ladder on the floor. White and three other teams hopped through the ladder, one by one, as Chris Brown’s “Don’t Wake Me Up” filled the room with fast beats. Pausing for a quick sip of water, the teachers moved from the ladder into a Tae-Bo workout, punching and kicking the air, and then on to a P90X routine.

“We schedule it for Monday,” White said. “So it’s a great way to start the week off.”