The bottom line is our children's waistlines

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The Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative (NEIFFI), coordinated by Ann Mansfield, with Luther College Center for Sustainable Communities as a Core Partner, was launched in 2007. Ten years later, the initiative is as vibrant as ever. This initiative is unique in our area, encompassing the six most northeast counties of Iowa and engaging 100,000 people in local communities and schools with the aim of reducing the rising tide of childhood obesity.

Nationwide, childhood obesity has been on the rise for years. This means that for the first time in history, the young people of our country may not live as long as previous generations. When the consequences of obesity are considered, heart disease, diabetes, and organ diseases, it's not hard to see why the longevity of our youngest citizens is in peril. Childhood obesity is linked to increased risk of adult obesity, that is, obese kids often become obese adults and the consequences of obesity can persist over one's lifetime. Clearly, obesity is a pressing issue for our society, but the truly pressing and most important issue is what are we going to do about it?

Enter the NEIFFI. Through a coordinated effort to shine the light of wellness on schools and preschools and improve access to fresh, locally grown foods and environments conducive to physical activity, the NEIFFI has been working tirelessly for the past decade to reduce the risk of childhood obesity in our area. Lots of obesity programs and interventions (think Weight Watchers, South Beach Diet, low-carb, spinning classes, Shaun T vids, etc.) have attempted similar work, but as its name implies, the NEIFFI is NOT a program and it is not an intervention. Programs and interventions are things that people often sign-up for and take part in for a certain period of time and then they come to a close. An initiative, on the other hand, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, "That which initiates, begins, or originates; the first step in some process or enterprise; hence the act, or action, of initiating or taking the first step or lead; beginning, commencement, origination." There could be no more fitting descriptor of the NEIFFI. The work that has begun over the first decade is only the beginning, a first step. Because the NEIFFI is built on the strength of a network of relationships with schools and communities, the work of the Initiative will undoubtedly continue and be a defining feature of this region for decades to come.

Knowing that the first step has been taken and NEIFFI work is ongoing in our region, it would be useful to know if the work is having any real impact on our children. Fortunately, in the last couple of years, a collaboration between recent Luther College graduates Kristin Housholder and Katelyn Janssen, Mayo Clinic physician and Luther alumnus Brian Lynch, alumna Ann Mansfield, Luther's project coordinator for the NEIFFI, and I have been able to systematically evaluate the benefits of the Initiative. We have measured children's body mass index (the key measure of overweight and obesity) from kindergarten through fifth grade, and it's important to note that we were able to follow each child as they went through each year of school. So, we have the growth patterns of body mass for several hundred school children in our area. We are also able to compare kids who went through school before the Initiative began its work (a control group of sorts) to children who went through school when the Initiative was in full bloom. If the NEIFFI is having an impact, then it should show up in the body mass numbers in our data, and indeed it does! Children who were fortunate to be in school during the Initiative's work show a slower rate of growth in body mass from kindergarten through fifth grade years, as compared to kids who were schooled before the Initiative launched. The graph below shows these trends. I should note that although the trend lines may not diverge in dramatic fashion, small benefits accumulating over six years of time add up, or should I say subtract, considerably by fifth grade. That is, fifth graders who experienced the Initiative work saved about six pounds of weight gained compared to those who didn't encounter the Initiative. The complete study can be accessed here.

Body Mass Index


Knowing that the NEIFFI's work continues in our area, and just as if not more importantly, that the work is having real and measurable benefits for our children is encouraging. It should also be motivating. If Hillary Rodham Clinton was right and it really does "take a village," then we are all responsible for carrying on what the NEIFFI has begun. Ensuring that our families, schools and communities provide adequate access to nutritious food and opportunities for physical activity is up to us.

Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint

Loren Toussaint, Luther professor of psychology and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project, is conducting research to broadly understand religious and spiritual factors, especially forgiveness, and how they are related to mental and physical health and wellbeing. Toussaint's research has been featured in a number of print, online and radio outlets, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Des Moines Register, Greater Good, Miller-McCune, Ladies Home Journal, Scotland on Sunday, Men's Health, Psychology Today and the Associated Press. Toussaint was interviewed on Georgia Public Broadcasting on the science behind forgiveness.

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