In Cherokee County, squeaky shoes are a sign of progress
Each year, elementary schools across our area engage in a friendly rivalry to see which school can get the highest participation numbers for Walk to School Day. The school that wins is presented with a $100 check and the coveted Golden Shoe Award during our annual Campo Giorno field day event. In just two years, the Golden Shoe contest has sparked the number of participants in Walk to School Day in our area to more than double.
Our community believes that every child deserves the chance to grow up healthy, so this kind of scene is becoming the norm in Cherokee County, not the exception. Thanks to hard work and dedication, rates of overweight and obesity here have declined by more than 20 percent among first-graders and among third-graders from 2012 to 2015.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of this development. Since 1980, childhood obesity rates in the United States have more than tripled. Today, nearly one in three children nationwide is overweight or obese.
Here in Cherokee County, though, we’ve been able to buck the trend. It starts with our mindset that caring for kids is a collective responsibility. Our ‘Eat Smart Move More’ coalition includes policymakers, educators, healthcare providers, faith-based institutions, and community volunteers all working with parents to help raise a generation of healthy kids. Our coalition—part of the community-based KNOW(2) movement—is making progress in unique and creative ways.
For example, we’re committed to helping families eat healthy at home. According to the 2016 County Health Rankings, nearly 20 percent of residents in Cherokee County are food insecure—meaning they don’t always know where or when they’ll get their next meal. We’ve responded with ‘Cooking Matters,’ a six-week course that teaches local families how to shop for healthy, affordable food and prepare delicious meals at home. Thanks to a grant through Clemson Extension and our local sponsor, Mary Black Health System-Gaffney, all participants receive free weekly groceries and the entire course is free for low-income families.
When it comes to physical activity, we know that kids don’t get nearly enough. We also know that being active is good for kids’ health and helps them perform better at school. So, on ‘Super Saturdays,’ Gaffney High School students run community field-day events, leading younger students and their families in activities like Ultimate Frisbee, relays, jump rope, and dancing. It’s hard to tell if the big kids or the little kids are having more fun!
Communities can and should be the driving force behind positive change, but we also need help. A few years ago, for instance, Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated nutrition standards for school meals that today are being implemented successfully in 100 percent of South Carolina schools. Research shows that the standards are working—meals are healthier and students are enjoying them—and recent polling shows that parents nationwide and in South Carolina support them. Congress should maintain and strengthen those standards.
State and local officials have a role to play, too. For example, South Carolina requires that elementary schools provide 150 minutes of physical education and physical activity weekly. All YMCA’s in Cherokee County—in fact, all YMCA’s in South Carolina—have adopted Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA) standards in their afterschool programs to help kids have healthy snacks and drinks and at least 30 minutes of physical activity. But we can do more. Minimum time requirements for physical education should apply to middle and high schools, too. We need to expand these HEPA standards to the more than 1,200 afterschool and summer camps statewide.
We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished here, but there’s absolutely no reason why this should just be a Cherokee County story. In fact, nothing would make us happier than seeing our success replicated in every county, city, and town across America. If we take what we’ve learned here to scale and apply it from coast to coast, the sky’s the limit for our country and our kids.