The proportion of children at a healthy weight increased from 62 percent at the start to 75 percent at three years for those in the program. Ironically, in Colombia, that mostly meant that more undernourished kids grew to reach a healthy weight.
In New York, where the program plans to launch in several early childhood and Head Start programs this spring and fall, project leaders will have to tackle under- and overweight kids.
“A lot of the kids are from low-income families, shelters,” and many have poor access to healthy foods, said Rachael Lynch, director of educational services for an Episcopal Social Services preschool, The Learning Center, in Harlem. “It’s a mecca for fast food around here. We’re trying to get them to walk past the Chinese food or pizza or McDonald’s, to go home and make something.”
Her preschool tested the Sesame Street project last summer and “it really took off” with kids and parents, she said.
“They love it. The kids relate, I can’t stress it enough,” to the Sesame Street characters, she said.
The program had kids work in a nearby community garden one day a week to learn about growing vegetables. They had a “mystery food box” to reach inside, feel and guess the contents, then use what they found to make a healthy snack such as smoothies, fruit salads, microwaved baked apples and apple dip.
Children took home a “weekend update” to list and draw pictures of what they ate. Parents were asked to sign it to encourage an adult focus on healthy meals.
Kateshia Strowder said the program had a big impact on her and her daughter, Jahmeice.
“We’d be in the grocery store and she would name every vegetable. It’s amazing. Brussels sprouts - she likes it. Cabbage - she likes it,” Strowder said. “I’m not a vegetable eater, to be honest. But I had to learn to do those things for her.”
Donte Payne said the same for his son, Bryson, a 4-year-old who also was in the Harlem program.
“It made him more interested in eating more healthy things,” Payne said. “He became very interested in salads. He loves salad now.”
In Colombia, the program is now expanding to about 20,000 children, and in Spain, a project is starting in Madrid. In New York, a foundation Fuster runs at Mount Sinai will sponsor the U.S. launch, aided by private donors.
Dr. Jaime Cespedes, a pediatric and heart specialist who helped lead the project in Colombia believes it will succeed wherever it is tried.
“Sesame knows kids, knows media and how to communicate the messages,” he said. “When you get the kids to deliver the message to the family, change will come.”