Winning The Fight Against Childhood Obesity

As a father of a nine-year-old, I see millions, perhaps billions of dollars spent on primary colored workbooks and take home paraphernalia for children. I assume that this is an attempt from the government, the self-serving corporations (often with a guilty conscience) and the school systems trying to get the increasingly sedentary and overweight children to move and be fit and make healthy food choices. Some of these programs for children are patronizing and full of lectures, instructions and the endless workbook “challenges” with all the plastic accouterments and fundraising criteria.

Meanwhile, I stumbled upon a much needed, 15-year-old grassroots initiative called Marathon Kids that resonates with all, is “on the cheap” and captures the soul and exuberance of hundreds of thousands of children, teachers, families. It is “evidence based” and it’s changing lives of at least 200,000 American K-5th graders just this school year.

It’s a free six month, running/walking, nutrition and schoolyard gardening program for K-fifth graders. Their target market are elementary school children most vulnerable to type 2 diabetes and sedentary lifestyles.

In other words…the little kids who would never ever raise his/her hand and say “this is something I can do.” Physical educators, classroom teachers are given elegantly simple, thin Marathon Kids Teacher Packets. The teachers become the workforce and they understand the program is not to be only “pitched” to their overachievers. There is a colorful and free Ceremonial Opening Kick Off Ceremony in each of the Marathon Kids eight (8) cities: Austin, Dallas, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and El Paso.

Kids can’t buy anything through this program, they instead earn their rewards. And earning seems to be the ticket. Never underestimate that even elementary children understand that something of value can come from putting forth a continuum of effort to earn a reward.

How often do we see little kids getting medals, trophies…for what?? These little Marathon Kids see their progress through visual coloring in of their Marathon Kids Running Log, accumulating their 26.2 miles in increments of 1/4 to 1/2 mile at a time. And it takes six months! They also color in every day they eat five-a-day fruits and veggies for 26.2 days a month. A marathon of healthy eating! They develop Marathon Kids Schoolyard Gardens with their classmates, and they are publicly awarded their weatherproof garden signs at the Marathon Kids Kick Off Celebration or Final Mile Medal Celebration.

One of the most important actions of the Marathon Kids mission is to get inner city kids onto college campuses. Helping them visualize a future where they become participants in college athletics is key. In Austin, the Kick Off Celebration draws 10,000 at 9 am and then 10,000 more at 11 am at University of Texas at Austin Myers Track Stadium. Los Angeles Unified elementary children, who do not even have Physical Education classes, gather at UCLA’s campus. 22,000 Houston children celebrate at University of Houston campus track. Being on a college campus can spark the imagination of kids as well as their parents (who might never have stepped foot on a university campus). Universities seem to get this free program because it serves their goal of community outreach. And, well, they just want to be part of the “love.”

This elegantly simple program works on many levels. It is not about speed. It’s about completion. It’s about community. It has the feel of a downright “love-in,” wrapping community around children of the lowest income. They have an average 83% completion rate. And kids repeat the program from year to year. Since 1996 when it began, Marathon Kids has served one million children!

Now, 15 years later, there are plenty of “one offs” of this little program with a heartbeat. The founder and staff are passionate about keeping the integrity of the “real” Marathon Kids program and keeping it free. The great majority of their children are very low income and of ethnicities most vulnerable to type 2 diabetes.

The University of Texas School of Public Health just completed a study of the free six month program. And guess what…it works and is evidence based! Significant upticks revealed that simplicity and heartfelt, community outreach can start to “move the dial” on our national childhood obesity epidemic.

Andrew Shapter

Film and Philanthropy

Provided by ArmMed Media