February 10, 2016, Detroit – Sister Mariane Fahlman, OP, is Professor of Health Education at Wayne State University in Detroit – yet, she spends much of her time reaching out to younger students – predominantly high school students – to teach them to make healthy life choices.
Sister Mariane heads up a team of undergraduate and graduate students involved in the Detroit Healthy Youth Initiative (DHYI). “DHYI is a 14-year partnership between Wayne State University’s Department of Kinesiology, Health, and Sports Studies and the Detroit Public Schools, with the goal of increasing the health of Detroit youth by improving the quality of physical activity and healthy eating opportunities,” she explained. Launched in 2002, the program has received more than $5 million in federal funding over the years.
In this program, the Wayne State students visit classrooms for about 15 minutes each week. “We focus on the U.S. dietary guidelines, teaching about the need to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains, cut out ‘non-nutritious’ food, drink healthy beverage and engage in physical activity,” she said.
The short lectures are often enhanced by food samples. “When we teach students about eating fruits and vegetables, we always bring samples for the students to taste to encourage them to eat these things,” Sister Mariane explained. She said about 40 percent of the students have never had a blueberry, but when they finally taste them, “they discover how sweet and delicious they are.”
The short lectures are given for five weeks in the first semester and five weeks in the second semester. In the high schools, the entire school is expected to be involved. For example, the principal might give a “healthy” announcement at the beginning of the school day, and schools that run their own cafeterias are expected to offer healthy choices each day. Schools that participate in this program are also asked to create a plan to keep up the focus on healthy living after the formal program has been completed.
Sister Mariane noted the vital importance of this health education, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that in the past 30 years “childhood obesity has doubled in children ages six to 11 and tripled in those ages 12 to 19.” About 17 percent of youth are affected by obesity, she said. This increase in obesity is related to a decrease in physical activity among the youth, she said, explaining that U.S. guidelines call for 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for youth and adults.
A related program, Building Healthy Communities, focuses on schools throughout Michigan. The goal is to transform the schools and to “infuse healthy eating and physical activity opportunities throughout the school environment to help children lead healthier lives and improve their school success," Sister Mariane said. The program has helped to transform more than 30 Detroit schools and 100 schools throughout Michigan.
Sister Mariane noted that schools in Detroit – and in similar urban areas -- face special challenges. Cities such as Detroit tend to be “food deserts,” in which larger grocery stores are a rarity and smaller grocery stores – that seldom stock fresh fruits and vegetables – are much more common. It is easier and less expensive for residents of inner-city Detroit to buy packaged items such as macaroni and cheese than to buy fruits, vegetables, and other healthy products, she noted.
Students in Detroit – a largely minority population – also face obstacles to being more physically active, Sister Mariane said. Caucasian children rank highest in physical activity, followed by African American, Arabs, and Mexican-American youth.
“We asked students what prevents them from being more active and tried to accommodate their needs to encourage them to be more active,” Sister Mariane said. The obstacles vary. For example, many Mexican-American children are forbidden to play outside their homes because of the danger of the streets.
Sister Mariane and her students, while providing services to the schools, have also conducted research on the results and have come up with some positive findings. For example, in one school over six months, students increased their measured amount of activity by 810 minutes during that six-month period.
Sister Mariane also pointed to neighborhood improvements that encourage residents to be more conscious of their health. Some local markets have agreed to provide healthy food. The program has also put up billboards in strategic places, inviting families to eat more healthy foods and to be more active. For their part, students have learned to eat more fruits and vegetables and less “non-nutritious food” and have increased their knowledge.
For more information, check out Wayne State University's Center for School Health website.