Kendra Pfeiffer’s third-grade classroom at White Cloud Elementary is a bit different than your typical garden-variety classroom.

Desks are lined in neat rows. Student artwork adorns the walls. Globes peer down from cabinets.

These are the typical things.

Against a far wall, something more atypical: a hydroponic garden that reaches toward the ceiling, humming faintly as its pump circulates water up a cylinder tiered with arugula, bibb lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

The leaves of the vegetables cascade in an almost luminous green, lit by bright LED grow lights. It looks very much like a miniature rendition of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

For Pfeiffer and her 21 students, the garden is part of their lesson plan.

Think of it as a bit of nutrition sprinkled among the reading and writing.

Good CATCH

The garden tower is one example of how teachers in Newaygo County, Michigan, are marshaling their existing resources to teach grade-school students about the importance of healthier food choices and physical activity.

It’s part of the CATCH program, or Coordinated Approach To Child Health, a comprehensive, national initiative aimed at reining in childhood obesity through healthier lifestyles.

The program came to a few Newaygo County schools in 2016 and is now being implemented in school districts throughout this rural county in West Michigan, where about 60 percent of students receive free or reduced meals at breakfast and lunch.

“The CATCH program had just started at our school and I was trying to link the hydroponic garden to that,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s exciting to see how much it changes from one day to the next, but especially when the students come back on a Monday to see how much growth has taken place.”

In districts already pressed for time and money, these kinds of sensible approaches to health promotion are ideal because they require minimally more in the way of time, effort and money.

Several universities developed the CATCH program in the 1980s, aiming to ensure students learn about healthy living at all points in their lives—in classrooms, lunchrooms, gyms and homes.

The methodic, deliberative lessons are ideal for helping young learners absorb the knowledge over time. The children learn to identify healthy foods and find creative ways to increase their daily activity.

The program uses language and symbols that resonate.

For example: GO foods, SLOW foods and WHOA foods.

This simple, color-coded mnemonic—fashioned after green, red and yellow traffic signals—reminds kids that GO foods are nutritious and can be eaten every day, while highly processed and sugary WHOA foods should be eaten sparingly. SLOW foods fall somewhere in between.

These types of labels are articulated not just verbally in classrooms, but on posters in lunchrooms, cafeterias and hallways.

“A WHOA food is like sugar and candy—food that’s not good for you,” said Gabrielle Dakins, a third-grader at White Cloud Elementary. “I learned from CATCH that we shouldn’t eat green beans with too much salt, so I eat more fresh green beans with less salt.”

She knows low-fat milk is better, too.

“It can give your bones more strength,” she said. “I’d recommend water, too, because that’s also good.”

Gabrielle isn’t alone in her newfound knowledge.

Just about every grade school student can recite the GO, SLOW, WHOA mantra.

Smoothies and stories

Community health specialists from Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial work alongside the K-5 teachers to perfect the CATCH lessons and integrate the material into the curriculum.

Every few weeks, a group of Gerber Memorial employees head to classrooms to help teachers answer student questions. They talk about CATCH and its health-centered messages and they encourage kids to take their taste buds for a spin by trying new foods in different hues and colors.

The foods are low in fat, high in vitamins and fiber and, most importantly, big on flavor.

At Newaygo Public Schools, food service director Mary Anne Charette and her staff recently whipped up a smoothie from low-fat strawberry yogurt, applesauce and apple juice.

It was a big hit with students who sampled it at lunch. Just about everyone gave it a thumbs-up.

“This was fun and easy,” Charette said. “And the kids really enjoyed it.”

With student input, Newaygo Elementary also added the smoothie to its breakfast menu, alongside whole grain graham crackers.

In a separate smoothie sampling at Patricia St. Clair Elementary, students crowded around Spectrum Health community health program specialist Erica Jordan as she placed an array of items into a blender.

Soy milk, frozen pineapples, banana, low-fat vanilla Greek yogurt—they all went in.

The combination drew skepticism from a few, but some quick sips took care of the naysayers.

“That’s really good,” one wide-eyed student said.

At nearby Grant Elementary, principal Carol Dawson, who delivers her CATCH message of the day over the intercom in English and Spanish, introduced exercise playing cards called FitDecks. The cards incorporate physical activity into the classroom.

Grant Elementary’s food service team also strategically places healthier snacks within easy reach of students, as well as offering yogurt at breakfast so kids start the day with protein.

“Healthy kids are better learners,” Dawson said.

New habits 

Students are taking the CATCH lessons to heart—and taking them home, too.

Patricia St. Clair Elementary physical education teacher Mark Arbogast has noticed student conversations increasingly center on health topics.

“Kids are talking a lot more about eating healthy,” Arbogast said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, Mr. A, I tried cauliflower last night and it was pretty good.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Hey, Mr. A, last night I tried Brussels sprouts and I didn’t really like them.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s OK, at least you gave it a try.’”

Students will randomly tell him about hiking trips, or walks they’ve taken with family members.

“That’s never really happened before CATCH,” he said.

Jana Dakins, Gabrielle’s mom, said she noticed a change in her daughter’s eating habits at home.

Gabrielle now eats salmon, which she hardly touched before CATCH came along. Jana credits the program for convincing her once-picky eater to try new foods.

“As a parent, I say we should introduce foods to them when they’re young,” Jana said.

Doctors and pediatricians have long touted the benefits of establishing positive, healthy habits at a young age.

CATCH is yet another tool to establish these habits—and at a critical moment.

When Gerber Memorial and its partners conducted a community health needs assessment to better understand the health issues in local communities, the usual suspects emerged: heart disease, diabetes, obesity.

But among children, the latter condition set off alarms.

In the past 25 years in the U.S., obesity rates for children ages 6-11 have nearly quadrupled, from 4 percent to 15.3 percent.

Beyond pushing an ambitious schedule of screenings and events geared toward adults in Newaygo County, Gerber Memorial’s community health team set out to change not just waistlines but trend lines, too.

“Our goal is to change people’s hearts and minds and make an impact on the next generation of young people before they develop chronic diseases,” says Josh Gustafson, director of Gerber Memorial’s community health and wellness programs.

Through CATCH, Gustafson and his team found a way to “nudge the culture toward making healthier choices.”

“With CATCH, our community health team, nurses, dietitians, fitness specialists and other staff are helping to show kids and their families from all backgrounds that eating nutritious, delicious food can be done economically and easily,” Gustafson said.

“Being physically active can happen anywhere, anytime,” he said.

CATCH is also one of the more cost-effective programs of its kind. With $100,000 of startup money in the community health budget, Gustafson’s team already serves 3,100 students throughout Newaygo County.

More specifically: That’s 3,100 kids in 107 classrooms at eight school buildings in five school districts.

“At about $32 per student, that’s a pretty economical investment on our end,” Gustafson said.

It is perhaps more impressive considering the savings on health costs down the road.

Costumes and carrots

Carol Deweerd, MD, a family physician at Gerber Memorial’s multispecialty clinic, has noticed the health trends manifest in young patients.

“In childhood, we see more bone and joint problems in kids who carry extra weight,” Dr. Deweerd said. “And we start to see some hormonal problems, problems with high blood pressure, cholesterol, pre-diabetes.”

It’s not difficult to spot the culprits.

“We live in a fast food society, or a microwave society,” said Bob Cassiday, former principal at Daisy Brook Elementary. “Those choices aren’t always well balanced.”

Cassiday, who recently hired on as superintendent of Springport Public Schools, said he and his former staff at Daisy Brook aimed to teach the kids about the factors that can lead to obesity, such as overeating, or choosing the wrong foods.

Sometimes, a simple and not-so-subtle message will do the trick.

When he served as crossing guard, Cassiday would don a bright-orange carrot costume. It was perfect to stop traffic, but also served to plant another “healthy foods” image in students’ minds.

In Daisy Brook’s cafeteria those messages were amplified further, with students receiving fruit cups, baked sweet potato chips, fresh apples and bananas.

“We know that our behaviors are influenced by our environment,” said Jena Zeerip, Gerber Memorial’s community health program lead. “And at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial, we are working collaboratively with schools to create healthier environments.”

Schools are an ideal place to build healthy lifestyles.

“Students spend most of their time in schools,” Zeerip said. “And it’s also where they consume a majority of their calories.”

Fit and active

Smart food choices are just half of CATCH’s one-two punch to knock out obesity.

At Daisy Brook, physical education teacher and CATCH champion Julie Gardenour led students in jumping jacks and other physical activities in the gym.

She dressed like a watermelon while she ran the class.

“We are wearing costumes to encourage healthy eating,” Gardenour said. “They probably start laughing at first, but I think they realize what I was representing.”

Students like Gabrielle have certainly retained the message.

“Fat that you ate from your lunch wouldn’t be good because it would build up more fat, and that would make your heart work extra hard—and that’s not good,” Gabrielle said.

Emphasizing her growing commitment to healthy choices, she added: “I’ve become a nutrition teacher.”

CATCH is effectively bolstering the school’s efforts. It’s “an additional improvement in what we’ve been trying to do,” Gardenour said.

At Arbogast’s gym class at Patricia St. Clair Elementary, students listened to Justin Timberlake and Pharrell tunes as they ran obstacle courses made from equipment provided by the CATCH program.

To spur on the students, Arbogast wore a superhero costume, complete with cape and tights.

“CATCH has been great for us,” Arbogast said. “It gave our staff a common language on how to speak with the kids, but then it also provided us with a lot of equipment and things that we normally couldn’t buy because finances are always low. We’re always trying to do more with less each and every year, and it’s just been great for that.”

Bright minds

In this era of standardized testing, meanwhile, CATCH may present yet another benefit: healthier minds.

“I firmly believe that the kids who move more think better,” Gardenour said.

Cassiday said CATCH’s emphasis on healthy eating can indeed benefit student performance.

“Kids who eat a nutritious breakfast tend to have more energy for the rest of the day,” he said.

The long-term goal is simple: reduce health risks associated with childhood obesity. This includes targeting diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

But it takes steady, deliberate steps to get there.

“Programs like CATCH that work with schools to expose children to healthy foods and teach the importance of physical activity are essential to reversing the trend in childhood obesity,” Gerber Memorial registered dietitian Emilie Klop said. “It takes a village to raise a child, and this is especially true for raising a healthy child.

“Nutrition and physical education need to be incorporated in every avenue of our children’s lives, including schools, at home and places of worship,” Klop said.

The Gerber Memorial team is making a difference, Deweerd said.

“To have a group of young, healthy, vibrant adults go into schools, invest the time and energy into showing kids in our community how to do this … it’s just really encouraging to me as a professional,” Deweerd said.