Kids 4 Health Institute tackles childhood obesity

Photo courtesy of YDS
Melvin Anderson, YDS founder Photo courtesy of YDS

By Lisa Bryant
Contributing Writer

First in a series

One year ago, Elizabeth Drake’s son Evan, 10, was considered obese for his height and age. At 5’3” and 195 lbs, Evan was avoiding all physical activity, eating compulsively, and being teased at school.
Concerned for her son’s health and well-being, Drake turned to her pediatrician, Dr. Tonya Bryan, at Park Nicollet Health Services in Plymouth, Minn., who referred the middle-school youth to a comprehensive health fitness program for children ages seven to 18 years called Youth Determined to Succeed (YDS), where Bryan is the lead physician and has developed the program’s health and nutrition curriculum.
“We enrolled immediately,” says Drake, who recalls emptying her kitchen cupboards of canned and boxed foods after attending a YDS workshop on nutrition. The workshop encouraged her to begin reading food labels with Evan and incorporating fruits and vegetables in every meal.
Today, Drake acknowledges that her son has dropped several pants sizes, has improved his eating habits, and has gained self-confidence. “He even tried out for the school football team and made it. That’s something he would never have done before.”
Since its launch in 1999 by founder Melvin Anderson as Minnesota’s first comprehensive youth health and wellness service organization, YDS has helped hundreds of children who struggle with their health to gain confidence by becoming healthier, developing healthy eating habits, acquiring leadership skills, and increasing their physical activity.
In 2012, YDS will launch a new initiative, Kids 4 Health Institute (K4H), a community-based program model that will address additional health determinants that impact community health. The K4H programs will be delivered through the Brooklyn Center school district in partnership with Medica, local clinics, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way.
This community-based approach fills a gap for healthcare providers, fulfills a community need and offers physicians continuum-care opportunities for their patients. It has helped position YDS as a leading youth health and wellness organization in Minnesota and across the country, say supporters of the initiative.
Most programs that focus on reducing childhood obesity identify the problem as a health issue impacting children rather than factoring in familial behaviors and environmental influences, explains Anderson. Many of these programs also recognize only two ways to reduce childhood obesity: improving the child’s diet and introducing exercise into the child’s daily regime.
Such approaches offer only temporary, short-term fixes because they don’t incorporate both diet and exercise simultaneously. And they never include influencers such as the child’s family or the child’s environment.
YDS takes a more comprehensive approach to reducing childhood obesity, says Anderson. Led by a team of pediatricians and nutritionists, YDS is a year-round program that educates the entire family, not just the child, about diet and exercise in order to improve the child’s eating habits and lifestyle.
The program incorporates daily exercise such as swimming, track, yoga and fitness training, as well as nutrition education to help the child and each family member adopt better eating habits. YDS also offers summer programs that develop youth leadership and confidence-building skills through a track and field component called Track Minnesota, which includes travel, college tours, and exposure to college scouts.
Of the youth who have completed the YDS program, 100 percent have graduated from high school, 90 percent have attended college, 100 percent have increased their knowledge of healthy eating habits, and 100 percent have increased their weekly physical activity.
When YDS begins its health fitness programs on October 1 at the YMCA in North Minneapolis, Anderson anticipates more than 200 youth will participate in the program throughout the year, the largest number of participants the program has had since pediatricians began referring youth to the program nearly three years ago.
“Approximately 70 percent of the youth who have enrolled in YDS come from doctor referrals,” says Anderson, “and all of them are experiencing weight or health issues.”
Dr. Christopher Williams, a pediatrician with Park Nicollet Health Services in South Minneapolis who has referred 15 to 20 patients already this year, says that approximately 60 percent of his patients are youth of color. And according to a survey conducted by the Pediatrics Department at Park Nicollet Health Services two years ago, approximately 20 percent of pediatric patients were found to be overweight or obese.
Childhood obesity in the U.S. has tripled in the past 30 years; more than one-third of the nation’s children and adolescents are overweight or obese. In African American and Hispanic populations throughout the nation, the problem is more severe; nearly one-half of all children are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although Minnesota is consistently ranked among the nation’s healthiest states, with a reported obesity rate slightly below 25 percent in 2010, disparities in risk factors, such as poor nutrition, physical inactivity and a lack of access to quality foods, are more prevalent in the state’s low-income communities and communities of color. This leads to a disproportionately higher rate of obesity among low-income youth and youth of color.
“Collaborating with YDS makes strategic sense for us,” says Dr. Ted Loftness, VP of Labor Health Services with Medica, a Minnesota-based healthcare provider. Loftness explains that the Medica Foundation nurtures community-based initiatives like YDS as a way to advance improvements in the availability, access and quality of health care.
The programs that YDS offers tackle the childhood obesity problem at its core by educating individuals and implementing positive lifestyle changes that impact families, schools and communities. “As a provider, we think YDS aligns perfectly with our health plans,” says Loftness.
“We’re making an impact one community at a time,” says Anderson. “The way I look at it, each child who is referred to YDS is one more person in our community who is choosing to live a long and healthy life.”

This story is the first of a three-part MSR series on childhood obesity. Parts two and three will look at how environmental influencers such as schools and the community and the lack of access to quality foods have exacerbated the childhood obesity problem.
Kids 4 Health, an activity-packed, 11-week program for youth ages 9 to 15, will begin Saturday, Oct. 1, at its new home at 3333 North 4th Street in Minneapolis. Classes will be held three days per week — Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 8 pm, and Saturdays from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm. Youth who enroll will enjoy fitness activities, health and nutrition education, and leadership training from YDS doctors, educators and trainers. To learn more about YDS and its Kids 4 Health program, visit www.youthdeter mined.org, or call 612-486-6730 and click option 2 on your telephone keypad.
Lisa Bryant welcomes reader responses to lisabryant177@comcast.net.