A statewide effort to address chronic health problems and improve Texans’ health and quality of life through preventative education of elementary students kicked off recently in East Texas.
The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Healthy Texas, formerly Healthy South Texas, initiative will expand to Angelina, Houston, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, Shelby and Trinity counties after Healthy South Texas showed successful results. Programs within the initiative’s scope, including Learn, Grow, Eat & Go! and Walk Across Texas, have been introduced to thousands of adults and youth over the last two years through Healthy South Texas.
The programs will also be expanded to communities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
AgriLife Extension personnel, administrators from Texas A&M University and State Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, attended the kickoff with students at Hudson Independent School District’s W.H. Bonner Elementary school near Lufkin.
Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said instilling good, healthy habits, including diet and exercise, is important for the future of Texas. He applauded AgriLife Extension for its successful outreach in South Texas and expansion of the Healthy Texas initiative in East Texas.
“The Healthy Texas initiative is changing lives,” Sharp said. “It’s changing individual children’s behavior when it comes to nutrition and exercise, and we’re seeing that these students are taking the lessons they’ve learned home to their families. So, when we think about the human and financial costs of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, those positive changes will be immense for Texas’ future.”
The statewide kickoff for the Healthy Texas initiative followed successful expansion of the existing programs in South Texas. State funding for the initial effort was extended in 2017 by the Texas Legislature.
Ashby said state legislators are well-aware of the programs’ successes and potential for improving Texans’ quality of life while reducing the financial impact of chronic diseases within state programs like Medicaid.
A competitive edge
“For Texas to remain competitive, we’ve got to produce well-educated, healthy people,” he said. “We hope Healthy Texas will continue to be a great benefit in the fight against diabetes, heart disease, stroke and so many other diseases related to nutrition and lifestyle choices. We want to benefit generations to come by teaching them the value of eating and living healthy so they can live longer, healthier, happier lives.”
Rusty Hohlt, AgriLife Extension assistant director for Healthy Texas, College Station, said Texas legislators are seeing the value of programs designed to prevent chronic diseases by encouraging active, healthy living among young students and adults.
“We appreciate that lawmakers like Rep. Ashby have championed the progress these programs have made in a short time and are willing to continue funding them so we can help Texans live healthier lives,” she said. “We are seeing, with the studies that follow these programs, that reaching children early will help us grow a healthier population as we move forward.”
Random surveys within the accompanying studies showed physical activity, vegetable preference and knowledge of nutrition and plant science increased among more than 1,369 third grade students while sugar-sweetened beverage consumption decreased. Student body mass indexes also showed significant reductions.
Parents were also changing behavior, according to the surveys, including increases in gardening, meal preparation and eating meals with their children.
Introducing healthy habits early
Joel Redus, AgriLife Extension family and community health agent, Angelina County, said reaching students during their formative years is planting a seed for them to be healthier, more active adults. Redus implemented the Learn, Grow, Eat & Go! program for three years at Hudson ISD and is seeing the difference. He said the program is a good way to introduce youth to vegetables they may not otherwise try because “when they grow it, they like it.”
“Elementary is the ideal age to introduce the kids to these programs because they are open to new things and not set in their ways,” he said. “To see them in the gardening program learning about nutritional food from seed to fork is exciting. They’re excited to plant the seed, nurture the plant, watch it grow and then taste it.”
School principal Scott Mackey said it was an honor for his campus to be chosen for the program rollout in East Texas. He said the lessons students have learned from AgriLife Extension agents over the past few years will follow them throughout life.
Culinary and nursing students from Hudson High School participated in the kickoff by cooking healthy snacks and checking elementary students’ blood pressure and heart rates. Hudson Middle School presented their hydroponic vegetable systems to the fifth-graders.
“It’s exciting for the kids,” Mackey said. “The fact is many of these kids have never gardened. To see them experience that and then see the experience translate into a taste for healthier foods is something I think will stick with them.”
This story by Adam Russell originally appeared in AgriLife Today.
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