Salads preferred choice for Orangeburg teens

Monday, July 20, 2009

It was no small feat, but organizers of an annual summer camp at SC State University have managed to convince some Orangeburg area teens to substitute foods high in fat and sugar with healthier options. As a result, the teens have noticed slimmer waistlines and, even better, improved academic scores.

The teens – 30 in all – were participants in the 2009 Health and Wellness summer camp, sponsored by SC State’s Family Life Center and the university’s 1890 Research & Extension Program. The camp was held June 12 – July 2 on SC State’s campus.

“I drink more water, eat more salads and eat less greasy foods like burgers and fries, said 16-year-old Alexandria Hezekiah, who begins 12th grade this fall at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School.

The Health and Wellness Camp is a component of Project FLAVA, a study funded by the 1890 Research Program. The project follows and evaluates over time the academic and personal growth of the project’s participants by examining the impact health and wellness has on academic performance. The project also incorporates a violence education and prevention component to assist and motivate at-risk youth to obtain a high school diploma and, hopefully, earn a higher education degree or receive training in a trade.

Most participants of Project FLAVA reside in the Sprinkle Avenue community, a low income area in the city, and have been a part of the program since the sixth grade. The academic performance and health of the students, who are now rising 11th and 12th graders, are monitored while attending the project’s after-school program and the summer camp.

In the after-school program, students receive assistance with their course work from SC State students, who serve as tutors, and learn about the importance of eating balanced meals and exercising. The camp is designed to reinforce, in a more controlled environment, the educational concepts and health and wellness principles the students learned while in the after-school program. At the camp, teens jumpstarted their day with a 6 a.m. boot camp and later attended educational sessions that focused on increasing students’ proficiency in mathematics and reading. Students also learned to prepare healthy meals with cooking demonstrations from 1890 Extension specialists or local nutritionists.

“Our research shows that the students can talk about health and wellness, but that is not what we are aiming for,” said Dr. Martha Jean Adams-Heggins, co-investigator. “We want to see if they are able to apply the knowledge we have given them. So far, they are gradually making choices to a healthier lifestyle.”

The progressive steps the students are taking could not have come at a better time, considering the state’s national rank on childhood overweight and obesity. A 2009 report by Trust for America’s Health cites South Carolina has the 5th highest percent of obese adults and the 13th highest percent of obese and overweight youth in the nation.

To date, the teens’ participation in Project FLAVA has resulted in decreased body mass indices, weight loss, better behavioral attitudes and academic improvement, noted Heggins and Dr. Necati Engec, co-investigator and associate professor of educational leadership.

According to the researchers, when the program began, the majority of the students lagged two, three and four years behind grade level in elementary school, with weaknesses in reading, math and spelling. Now, in high school, nearly all students were promoted to the next grade. Additionally, 91 percent of the project’s students who took the mathematics and or English/Language Arts tests of the High School Assessment Program (HSAP) passed the state mandated examination for the 2007-2008 academic year.

Heggins and Engec want to continue following the progress of the students when they are enrolled in a university or trade school, and are looking for funding to support this next phase of the project.

For more information on Project FLAVA, call (803) 516-4696.