“We ran out of salad!” said Oswego County Public Health Director Jiancheng Huang, recalling one particularly noteworthy day at Charles E. Riley Elementary School, where the program was instituted in 2015.
Healthy Highways was introduced into Riley and Minetto Elementary School with the goal of shepherding children towards healthy choices with food and physical activity and teaching the benefits of those choices to students for the rest of their lives.
Now, a groundbreaking collaboration between the Health Department, the Richard S. Shineman Foundation and Oswego Hospital, which Huang called a “true community effort,” will provide the resources to place Healthy Highways in the eight other public school districts throughout the county.
Officials who have been with Healthy Highways since its inception say its success is undeniable.
Diane Oldenburg, Senior Public Health Educator for the county Health Department, was one of the key figures in identifying the Healthy Highways curriculum as a viable strategy for combating what experts say borders on a public health crisis in Oswego County.
“We’re at the bottom of the pack when it comes to risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes – those things build across a lifetime,” said Oldenburg. “We try to instill these healthy habits because if we want to see our community health improve, we have to start early.”
Healthy Highways lessons show students the differences between “red light” food choices, like cookies, cupcakes and chips, and “green light” choices, like vegetables, fruits and whole grains in a fun and accessible way embraced by students, teachers and families.
“It’s really become part of the culture,” Oldenburg said. “We know schools that are using Healthy Highways ate more fruits and vegetables and families are choosing hiking and biking over driving.”
While traditional nutrition guides can be confusing to understand, Healthy Highways offers a simplified and easily relatable curriculum (Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is one of the key textbooks) about how to choose between “every day” and “special occasion” foods.
Officials say the proliferation of Healthy Highways throughout elementary schools is a crucial step towards improving overall public health, and are excitedly optimistic that the program can duplicate its success in Oswego.
“We know every school and district is different so we’re looking forward to schools taking the basic concepts and making it their own,” said Oldenburg.