By Charity Battles

Today’s youth are heavier than youth from any other generation. Nearly one out of every three children in the United States is obese or at risk of becoming obese, with children in minority families at an even greater risk.

Obesity is the most common disease of childhood, and it’s usually preventable.

“We have seen all the statistics on childhood obesity in Alabama,” said Dr. Barbara Struempler, a professor at Auburn University. “It’s almost overwhelming. We have one of the highest obesity rates in the country, and one-third of kids between the ages of 6 and 11 are obese. That has an impact on health costs and future employment—not to mention the quality of life for obese children.”

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The Alabama Cooperative Extension System is addressing this issue across the state with a unique program that utilizes technology and nutrition education to promote behavior change. “Body Quest: Food of the Warrior” uses Apple iPads as teaching tools.

“We quickly realized that the best way to engage kids was with the coolest technology we could find. That led to Extension’s developing one of the first and best nutrition and health apps that students use on the Apple iPad. Alabama is truly leading the way with this project,” said Dr. Sondra Parmer, Extension Specialist, Auburn University.

Body Quest uses colorful animé-style cartoon characters (referred to as Body Quest Warriors) to represent each food group. Some of these characters include: Body Doctor – fruit, Shining Rainbow – vegetables, Muscle Max – protein, and Graino Supa – grains.

The curriculum spans 17 weeks and incorporates iPads, vegetable tasting and various classroom activities as well as periodic assessments to determine the strength of the program.

As a result of Body Quest, data indicated that there was a steady spike in the amounts of fruits and vegetables children ate during school lunch throughout the program.

Evaluations also showed that 97 percent of children were highly engaged in the content using the iPad apps.

Body Quest educator Charity Battles currently teaches seven Body Quest classes to third-graders throughout schools in Chilton and Bibb counties.

There is already a waiting list for the next school year’s line-up for Body Quest in these counties.

Children that participate not only learn good eating habits and to open their minds to eating more fruits and vegetables, but they also receive a free T-shirt for participating, along with stickers and other items.

As for the students, they might be the biggest fans of all. Each week there is something new and exciting.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect is the Warrior Reports each week. Warrior reports are reports students share regarding their personal experiences about trying new fruits and vegetables or whom they might have encouraged to take the warrior vow (a short vow about trying new fruits and vegetables while learning to be healthy).

Some of the stories are unexpected. One boy explained that he surprised his mother with asking to try a new vegetable, and the following day she bought him a go-cart. He felt it was a reward for his brave new behavior.

About a third of the kids share similar stories, though they don’t always have such an impressive prize.

Children are asking their parents to participate and to buy new vegetables that they have discovered they enjoy.

They are learning that even if they don’t like something the first time they try it, that doesn’t mean they won’t like it the next time.

Body Quest has proven successful in helping children develop lifelong healthy habits and with thecurriculum only a couple of years old, we’re only getting started.

–Charity Battles is a Regional Extension Agent in the Nutrition Education Program of Alabama Cooperative Extension.