A group of students at Cliffside Park High School say they have increased their stamina, dropped a few pounds and improved their skin because of a HealthCorps program brought there in 2006.
The national non-profit organization, cofounded by Dr. Mehmet Oz, battles childhood obesity by funding and placing recent college graduates in underserved public high schools. Each school has one coordinator, who teaches health, fitness and nutrition, and organizes activities for the entire student body.
“I’ve stopped eating junk food and don’t go to McDonald’s anymore, and my skin has improved a lot,” said freshman Soo Kang. “Once I learned how meat is processed, I stopped eating that also.”
Kang is a member of the HealthCorps Garden to Table Club, an after-school activity started by Cliffside Park’s coordinator, Joshua Wood. At the weekly meetings, club members prepare for periodic schoolwide health fairs, watch films on meat processing and good nutrition, and participate in cooking classes and gardening.
Wood signed up for a two-year stint at the school and teaches about 12 health classes weekly to all grades. He also organizes activities such as the cooking classes and gets the students involved in providing a healthier nutritional environment.
“We were able to change the school cafeteria menu a little and now have a salad bar twice a week and whole-wheat buns,” Wood said. “We also implemented little changes like offering fruit in a wicker basket, which makes it more appealing, rather than on a metal cafeteria tray.”
Many of the coordinators defer medical school or health-related careers for the high school teaching experience. Each of the 54 schools in the program nationwide is budgeted $70,000 to cover the coordinator’s salary, benefits and supplies, such as garden materials or ingredients for the cooking classes.
Cliffside Park, North Bergen High School and Central High School in Newark are the only three schools in the state with a HealthCorps program.
Schools must submit applications to be part of the program and are chosen based on need, said Amy Barone, a HealthCorps spokeswoman.
“We look for schools in underserved communities,” Barone said. “Our goal is to stem the childhood obesity rate by empowering children to take charge of their bodies.”
Nearly one in three children and adolescents are overweight today, about triple the rate from three decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Obese youngsters are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure and pre-diabetes, a condition indicating a high risk of developing diabetes.
“My vision for HealthCorps is to engage young people as the catalyst to enhance the health of communities across the country, especially among high-needs populations,” said Oz, who lives in Cliffside Park. “Locally, in 2006, HealthCorps launched at Cliffside Park High School, where we continue to educate and mentor over 600 students a year and extend our message to 1,000 family members and community residents, including school staff and faculty.”
Though it’s difficult to quantify how successful HealthCorps is, the school administration is pleased with the program.
“The HealthCorps curriculum has offered the students of Cliffside Park the opportunity to learn about important health issues — eating habits, exercise, relationships, hygiene, etc. — that impact their daily lives,” said Superintendent Michael Romagnino. “Although we do offer our students health education each year, HealthCorps goes above and beyond by providing additional programs that we would not be able to offer our students during these difficult budgetary times.”
Students also seem to respond — several dozen applied to be in the 15-member after-school program — and many others enjoy the garden Wood had students build in a campus courtyard.
“Mr. Wood talks to everyone on their level, not down to us,” said Carolina Marin, a freshman. “He came into our math strategy class and talked about ‘portion distortion’ and how much you should really be eating compared to what we do eat. It was amazing.”
Since applying what she’s learned about eating healthy, Cindy Aleman, a freshman, said she has more stamina on the soccer field and is able to run a bit faster and longer.
“I don’t eat junk food and can see a difference,” Aleman said. “I just feel better and now I run more often.”
Andrew Rivera, a senior, admitted he applied to the afterschool program because he needed more extracurricular activities for his college applications. But he said he was surprised by how much he enjoyed the club and how it has changed his thinking about nutrition.
“We learned how to make butternut squash soup and it was really good — I went home and made some for my mom,” Rivera said. “I didn’t expect to like this club as much as I do.”