Programs such as NSTEP (Nutrition, Students, Teachers, Exercising with Parents) are empowering children early on with the information and habits needed to live longer and healthier lives

A group of children from Sweet Grass elementary school are ready to sample a platter of food that represents a new experience for some. The contents include a platter of fresh spinach, peapods and broccoli — just items you’d normally find in a grocery store’s produce aisle.

One student has been assigned a leadership role and he stands at the head of the class, ensuring there are enough napkins and that the snack, which is part of NSTEP (Nutrition, Students, Teachers Exercising with Parents) Eat, Walk, Live program, is handed out to each student.

A smile stretches wide across his face when Darlene Schindel, NSTEP Ambassador, walks to him and asks him how things are going. “I can cook!” he says, clearly proud of the lunch tray he
helped put together.

“That to me,” says Schindel, “is empowerment.” And empowering students with knowledge of their health and how to apply that information within their lives is Schindel’s goal. Eat, Walk, Live is just one small part of the larger NSTEP, a program that incorporates elements of healthy living — from nutrition to exercise to mindful thinking — into all aspects of the curriculum throughout all grade levels.

Schindel was a neuroscience nurse, and her healthcare background gives her insight into current issues affecting children’s health. Children as young as four, she says, are now developing type two diabetes, which in the past would only present itself in much older patients.

Rena LaFrance, a practising physician at the Misericordia and the Stollery Children’s Hospital, psychiatrist, and medical director for provincial Pediatric Chronic Disease for Alberta Health Services, nods when asked if she’s witnessing the same thing. “I am seeing children with high cholesterol, a lot of sleep apnea, a lot of depression and anxiety, fatty liver in young children, and hypertension that requires medical treatment,” she says. “And with older teens, now we’re seeing multiple organs being affected.”

Many of these issues are arising in conjunction with obesity, which according to the Childhood Obesity Foundation is at the level of an epidemic in our country with rates rising 26 per cent from 1979 to 2004 for children between the ages of two and 17. Teenagers are the most at risk with their rates doubling. But health problems aren’t just tied to obesity; a child with a weight in the normal range is also at risk for developing severe health problems.

The problem is so critical that according to the World Health Organization, today’s children may be the first generation to die in large numbers before their parents if nothing is done. The good news is that prevention is proven to be effective. According to Wellness Alberta, a one-dollar investment into health prevention can yield a minimum of four to five dollars in savings in future
acute health care costs — and hope for longer and healthier lives in the next generation is beyond measure.

It’s why Schindel is so passionate about NSTEP. Children are educated right from kindergarten with Eat, Walk, Live. The program provides professional development for teachers, along with information and support for parents on healthy living.

Danielle Steenwinkel, a junior high Physical Education and French instructor at D.S. MacKenzie School, says NSTEP has impacted her whole family. Her husband, a principal with the school district, became a full vegan, and lost several pounds; and her adult children now eat healthier meals and are more active.

D.S. MacKenzie offers a fitness program for teachers, along with yoga classes. One staff member stopped smoking and others have slowly changed their habits. And in the classroom, kids are learning about healthy food, eating nutritious snacks, participating in intramural activities — they are also learning about different cultural meals, and how to identify foods in different languages. Each of the 10 participating schools decides how best to incorporate aspects of healthy living into their classrooms.

In 2015, Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) provided funding, allowing NSTEP to increase the number of schools that could participate in the elementary school program.

“I initially wrote the grant for $10,000 and I got a letter back saying they wanted me to ask for more like $20,000,” says Schindel. “I’d never had a grant I’d submitted come back and say we want you to double what you’re asking.”

It costs NSTEP $24 per student for the full year program in their school. When NSTEP received $19,217 from ECF, it enabled the organization to reach 800 students in the elementary program along with their teachers and parents.

Schindel sees NSTEP as part of a larger goal to create a shift in how we look at our health. The program seeks to simplify the message of health, which has become very convoluted in the way it’s portrayed. We are bombarded with conflicting information — one minute, a glass of wine a day can prevent heart disease, the next minute, we’re told alcohol is destructive to our health. Some diets restrict calories to dangerous levels and others tout the idea of eating cookies for each meal, without concern for proper nutrition.

“There are tons of fads out there and it’s hard to know what information is accurate,” says LaFrance. Alberta Health Services also offers a program called MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition … Do It), which had been originally created in the UK, for children aged two to 13 and their families. The program provides straightforward information about healthy eating, building self esteem, active play, positive parenting and healthy growth.

“We want to give people the accurate message because a lot of what you hear normally is just noise. So, we are looking at what actually works when it comes to maintaining health,” LaFrance says.

She sees NSTEP as a collaborator in that goal, and says making real headway will require large-scale change on more than just individual levels. Not only are the messages people receive about health complex, but the very systems we have in place make it difficult for many people, and especially children, to maintain their health.

“I think there’s probably a misconception that it is an easy thing to start fixing this issue. That if only kids just ate less, and exercised more, that would solve their problem,” says LaFrance.

Instead, she believes the issue is a part of our larger culture. Convenience foods are full of sugar and carbohydrates and hardly any nutrients; schools beyond a certain grade often don’t even have recesses or mandatory physical education; children are entertained with screen time rather than outdoor activities; cities are often built to be car-friendly rather than pedestrian- or bike-friendly.

“We have this environment that makes it easy to gain weight or be unhealthy and then we tell people, ‘Well why can’t you lose weight?’ Well, this is why,” LaFrance says.

The solution, she says, goes far beyond what can be done individually by health-care practitioners like herself. Instead, she sees it as a collaborative effort to be undertaken by governments, non-profits, companies and schools. She sees potential for huge improvements coming from changing the very systems that make these problems so prevalent, while educating a whole generation about health.

“We are doing the same thing in education as we are in healthcare,” says Schindel, “We so often work in silos rather than being collaborative. We want to change that, and it will take all of us working together to bring this about.”

LaFrance likes seeing a shift toward more prevention, and NSTEP is actively seeking to make that concept more of a reality by joining forces with more than 100 other organizations, non-profits and leaders in the community to form Wellness Alberta, whose goal is to help shift health-care toward a more proactive approach. Rather than viewing health as something that’s just taught as a separate class once a week, NSTEP incorporates it into every subject through a model called comprehensive school health.

Steenwinkel and Schindel are already seeing an impact on students. “You are seeing the lights go on and they’re making better decisions about the foods they eat,” says Steenwinkel. The program goes beyond just the mechanics of eating well and exercising, it also encompasses leadership and confidence.

One little girl was in a leadership position and she tried incredibly hard to encourage her classmates to try a healthy snack that she helped make. She was surprised by the difficulty of the task; but afterwards, according to Schindel, she made the connection between how those children were acting and how she normally would respond when her mom cooked a meal. She often would refuse to
try the food and just assumed she would not like it; now she knew what it was like to be on the opposite end of those complaints.

“That awareness and self-learning is a huge part of the program,” says Schindel. LaFrance has also seen remarkable changes in children who have lost weight and adopted a healthier lifestyle. Many have been ostracized or bullied; but with changes to their lifestyles, they often become more active both physically and socially. And they often become involved in sports they never would have attempted before. She often sees their confidence levels rise and their outlooks change dramatically.

“A lot of families say that the kids feel like they are invisible when they first come to me. It is incredibly gratifying when that changes,” she says.