- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - In 2010, more than 17 of every 100 Lincoln Public Schools elementary and middle school students were not just overweight — they were clinically obese.

That number has steadily decreased to 15.4 percent, putting Lincoln six years ahead in meeting its goal to reduce childhood obesity rates 10 percent by the year 2020, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1DxYBke ) reported.

In just five years, LPS K-8 obesity rates dropped 10.8 percent, and physical fitness rates have climbed from 71 percent to 77.4 percent — putting Lincoln even closer to the goal as the healthiest community in the nation.

What’s different?

For starters, LPS has a dedicated wellness coordinator — Michelle Welch. A whirling dervish of creative energy and zeal, Welch brings focus and groundwork to the individual efforts of schools and teachers.

Her position, one of the first of its kind in the United States, was funded with a three-year grant through Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln. Because of the program’s success, LPS made the wellness coordinator post permanent.

The partnership is a collaboration of 13 health/wellness organizations, groups and government entities.

Think of it as the hub of a bicycle wheel — providing strength and support to the many spokes (agencies and groups), all working toward the same goal of improved health and wellness for everyone in Lincoln/Lancaster County.

Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln began in 2010 as the outgrowth of two simple questions: What makes a community healthy? And how can a community make that happen?

Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln organized to create a cultural change that would improve the health and lives of people throughout the community.

Recognizing that Lincoln has many nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping people live healthier, the partnership does not reinvent or compete with those efforts, but rather brings everyone to share, support and brainstorm. And Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln provides the necessary foundation — publicity, grant writing, networking and other organizational elements — thereby allowing organizations to focus on the project at hand.

“We’re not there to be front and center. We are there to make it happen,” said Dr. Bob Rauner, director of the nonprofit organization.

And so in 2010 the partnership was formed, with the assistance of the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln.

“Our initial early efforts were school-based,” Rauner said.

Working with Dr. Karla Lester, Lincoln pediatrician and founder of Teach a Kid to Fish, they collected data on LPS kindergarten through eighth grades to get an accurate measure of what everyone was calling the “childhood obesity epidemic.”

The solution was not rocket science — kids needed to move more and eat healthier, less-processed foods. But like anyone who ever has struggled with their weight, kids knowing what to do and doing it are two very separate things.

Enter Welch.

“I’m wacky,” she confessed. “I have never taken that stern shake-your-finger-eat-your-broccoli angle. It’s all about relationships and people having more fun.”

And so, the registered dietitian who lacked any financial resources found an ingenious ways to get students and staff all moving in the same direction — instituting challenges and competitions.

The ultimate goal was integrating wellness into any and every academic lesson, social event and class project.

At Fredstrom Elementary they had a berry-tasting session. Elsewhere, students toured a kitchen and saw how healthy foods were made. On standardized testing days students get “brain breaks.” Students now come to PE and start running laps even before the teacher begins class.

“By focusing the message on the positive and fitness pieces, we are doing a lot of things to move the needle on the obesity side of things without anyone feeling pointed out because of what the scale says,” Welch said.

School data reveal that the benefits are more than lower weights and improved fitness.

“We have the data that supports the fact that specifically when kids are fit, regardless of their skill, they do better academically — across the board, but especially in math, reading and science,” she said.

Those benefits have implications far outside the classroom, Rauner said.

That improvement in academic performance “ultimately translates into an improved workforce and economic benefits for the community,” he said.

Compared to 2010, there are 550 fewer obese kids in Lincoln Public Schools. With an estimated $1,900 cost per child for obesity-related issues — that represents a $9 million savings in just five years, Rauner said.

“That’s a good return on our investment. Plus they do better academically,” he said.

With school programs moving along, Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln is taking aim at other sectors of the community — specifically, infants and adults. This past fall, the partnership was awarded a $2 million, three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control to support more coordinated health-improvement projects with its collaborating agencies.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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