This is a dangerous development that Fan4Kids, a Hoboken-based non-profit group, is trying to reverse. "Frighteningly, today's children are the first generation of kids in American history that have a shorter life expectancy than their parents," said Khalid Bomba, the CEO and founder of Fan4Kids. The education service company was formed in response to the alarming issues related to children's fitness and nutrition. "If that's not a wake-up call, I don't know what is."
Fan4Kids provides an integrated in-school program that educates kids at an early age and empowers them to make healthy decisions about fitness and nutrition. Currently, Fan4Kids conducts a once-a-week class at Hoboken's three public elementary schools, the Hudson School and the public school in East Harlem. In total, six instructors have educated over 1,000 kids in the benefits of eating right and keeping in shape.
"Unfortunately, kids today have become the victims of aggressive junk food advertising, a culture that embraces 'super-sizing' and advanced technologies that keep kids a captive sedentary audience," said Bomba.
Left Wall Street
Bomba and Robert Oliver Jr., the organization's co-founder and chief operating officer, developed the concept around a year and half ago. At the time both were climbing the corporate ladder; Bomba was a vice president in Corporate Finance at JP Morgan and Oliver was an equities trader with Heartland Securities.
While both were in financial fields for their professional life, they have always had a passion for staying fit. Bomba is a third degree black belt and Oliver is a certified personal trainer who coaches co-ed soccer for kids ages 7 to 12, and founded the NJ All-Star Summer Soccer Camp.
The two met while playing semi-professional soccer and decided to take the leap to form Fan4Kids in response to the issues related to children's nutrition and fitness, as well as the lack of coordinated and simple solutions in schools and the community.
The fat facts
According to a recent study from the American Obesity Association, over 30 percent of children are at risk, with 15.3 percent of children age 6 to 11 being considered overweight and an additional 15.3 considered obese. "The effects of childhood obesity are numerous, from lifetime health problems such as Type II Diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and heart disease to emotional and psychological effects such as low self esteem, low confidence and depression," said Bomba.
According to Oliver, there are many contributing factors to the problem of childhood obesity, which include the aggressive marketing of foods loaded with sugar, school cafeterias serving cheaper, less healthy food, national budget cuts for physical education and nutrition classes, bigger portion meals, and the emergence of TVs, video and the Internet as the 21st century babysitter.
Across the country, physical education classes are being cut to save money and to accommodate new federal education standards for math and literacy standardized tests, he added. According to recent reports, fewer than 30 percent of high school students have PE daily, down from 42 percent in 1991.
Nuts and bolts
The Fan4Kids program is developed in consultation with the Center for Obesity Research and Intervention, the Center for Effective School Practices, and the New Jersey Center for Character Education and in conjunction with a group of expert advisors that include pediatricians, nutritionists, personal trainers and school psychologists.
Currently, the program is privately funded, with the largest contributor being Shop-Rite Supermarkets. Also Hoboken's state Sen. Bernard Kenny has lobbied for state funding and a state grant pending, which would fund the program for the next year.
Fitness and nutrition
In Hoboken elementary schools, the instructors meet with each class once a week; one week they teach a nutrition lesson and the next a fitness class.
According to Bomba, the kids are exposed to a variety of new activities, sports and exercises. But in addition to sports and games, the program also encourages a variety of activities to increase the heart rate such as riding a bike, playing in the park, taking walks, hikes, or using the stairs instead of taking the elevator as a few ways to get moving. "It's about teaching [these students] to be and stay active," said Bomba, "life long lessons."
According the program's founders, the key to nutrition eating is balance and variety. "We explore ways to make sure that we eat the right foods that provide all the essential vitamins and minerals, without an overload on excess fats and sugars," said Oliver.
Fan4Kids supports eating a balance of foods and making healthy choices - a bagel rather than a muffin, fruit instead of potato chips, frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. It may not be a matter of eating less, but of choosing a better balance through a variety of healthy foods, they said.
Also, said Oliver, the education goes beyond the classroom. The program reaches out to parents to get involved and to learn with their kids and reinforce the lessons from the Fan4Kids in-school curriculum at home, with regular parent packs, and soon to come parent forums. "We want to make eating healthy and staying active a family event," said Oliver.
Also, the program enlists members of the community, local businesses and national corporations to local and state politicians and institutions. For example Tiger Schulmann's Karate and Devotion Yoga offers free introductory courses for the students in the program.
Schools are supportive
"The kids look forward to the weekly lessons and are exhibiting marked enthusiasm for each appearance by the Fan4Kids instructors," said Linda Palumbo, the principal of Calabro Elementary School. "They have retained much of what is taught in the program and have begun to actually apply these lessons to their daily activities. Faculty members have noticed an improvement in the children's eating habits, citing increased effort to integrate healthier alternatives such as vegetables and fruits in to their diets."