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Child care centers front line in battle against obesity

Grants from Blue Cross and Blue Shield are helping child care centers make their menus healthier and let children be more active.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Child care centers have become the front line in North Carolina's battle to lose its status as having the fifth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.

Grants allow state-trained health consultants like Krista Barbour to visit and advise child care centers on how to keep children slim.

"We like to break habits early and start nutritious habits and healthy habits early, so they carry them throughout their life," Barbour said.

More than 30 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds in North Carolina are or will become overweight, according to the early childhood nonprofit Smart Start.

A new $3 million grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation will help Smart Start launch the "Shape NC" program. The goal is to help more child care centers tackle childhood obesity.

Organizers expect the statewide program to reach 2,500 child care teachers and directors and as many as 60,000 children. In Wake County, health consultants will work with 15 child care centers in the next year.

Barbour has helped Wanda's Little Hands on Poole Road in Raleigh revamp its menu. Children eat ham-and-cheese wraps instead of chicken nuggets, carrots and fruit instead of cookies and chips, and skim milk instead of whole.

"A lot of centers are looking at what could be quick and easy to fix, and that's not always the healthiest," Barbour said.

Consultants will give early childhood workers ideas on physical activity for children. Parents get handouts on nutrition, easy meals and tips on keeping their children active.

Families are encouraged to plant a garden or rake leaves and jump in the piles. Parents are given guidelines to play with children for two hours a day and have children play outside for an hour each day.

Danielle Billingsley said she's learned to teach her 2-year-old son eating and physical activity habits that could last a lifetime.

"As a family getting out and getting active, (I'm) not just sitting on the porch watching kids on their bikes, but actively getting out and riding myself," Billingsley said.

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Renee Chou, Reporter
Mark Simpson, Photographer
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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