- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Grilled chicken replaced the hot dogs. Strawberries instead of cookies at snack time. No more fruit juice - water or low-fat milk only. This is the new menu at a Delaware day care center, part of a fledgling movement to take the fight against obesity to pudgy preschoolers.

Day care is the next frontier: New Harvard research shows few states require that child-care providers take specific nutrition and physical activity steps considered key to keeping the under-5 crowd fit. While years of work now have older children starting to get healthier food in schools, more kindergarteners show up their first day already overweight or obese.

“We’ve got to start really early. Elementary school is too late,” Dr. Lynn Silver of the New York City Health Department - a leader in anti-obesity standards for day care - told a recent meeting that brought child-care specialists together with federal and state health authorities to start learning how.

This isn’t about putting youngsters on a diet. It’s about teaching them early, before bad habits form, how being active and eating healthy can be the norm - and that junk food, including the chicken nuggets-type fare that we call “kid food” - should be a rare treat.

“This is a whole new way of eating for our kids,” said Maria Matos, who heads the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington, Del., and has overhauled what she now knows wasn’t an ideal preschool menu even though it fully complied with day care regulations.

It took some adjustment. Ms. Matos started serving dishes with brown rice instead of white. The mac-and-cheese got a wheat makeover, too. Many of her youngsters had never even seen honeydew and kiwi, and had to be coaxed to try it.

“You have to get people used to this different type of eating,” she said. “Some are there, and some are still getting there.”

Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and it starts shockingly early. Research last April found almost one in five 4-year-olds already was obese, with the rates highest among American Indian, Hispanic and black children.

Nearly three-fourths of children ages 2 to 5 spend at least part of their day in child care, about half in formal day care centers.

That makes day care a vital next front, said Debbie Chang of the Delaware nonprofit Nemours Health & Prevention, which helped push that state to adopt a list of new child-care licensing requirements to do just that.

“Everybody is always pointing fingers at us parents saying, ‘You should do better.’ A lot of other people are feeding our kids,” agreed nutrition specialist Margo Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Such mandates aren’t common. Harvard researcher Sara Benjamin compiled a list of 20 nutrition and physical activity regulations that health specialists call key and found that as of January, Idaho and Louisiana had the fewest such requirements, and Delaware, Georgia, Alaska and Nevada the most.

Among Ms. Benjamin’s most disappointing findings: Parents may describe this as the age of ants-in-the-pants, yet an average day included less than an hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Her team visited one Rhode Island day care last fall where the children didn’t get to run around at all when it rained.

Ms. Matos said the changes cost a bit more; she hired an extra part-time cook to make more from scratch, and fresh foods can cost more than processed.

Ms. Chang and Ms. Wootan say day cares can make many cheap changes - swapping water for juice, for instance. But it’s an issue that Nemours is pushing Congress to tackle as it reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act later this year, which helps fund food at low-income day cares.

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