This is the first in our
"Living Healthy" series, in which we'll be profiling
organizations on the front lines of the fight against childhood
obesity. Check back on Mondays in April for more stories.
It's 8:15 on a chilly, damp morning in late winter, and
kids' voices are bouncing off the gym walls. Actually, so are some
of the kids.
But suddenly, the room quiets and music comes on over the
loudspeaker. The kids take one deep breath, then another, and reach
their arms over their heads as "Here Comes the Sun," by The
Beatles, fills the room.
This is Morning Movement, a daily exercise and stretching
session at Namaste
Charter School on Chicago's Southwest
Namaste may very well be the healthiest public school in
Chicago. Kids have an hour of gym every day, the only grains are
whole grains, and turkey burgers are the most popular
"It's not what people expect to see in a public school,"
principal Allison Slade says.
Maybe it should be. Between 15 and 20 percent of the
nation's school-aged kids are now characterized as obese, and
Chicago's preschoolers are overweight at twice
the national rate. Race and poverty exacerbate the
gap: A 2004 study
found that around half of children in majority black and
Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago's South and West Sides were
overweight, compared to just 10 percent in Norwood Park, which is
88 percent white.
And Namaste, at the corner of 37th Place and Paulina on
the city's Southwest Side, is at the center of the storm. It's open
to all CPS students, but draws heavily from the surrounding
McKinley Park and Back of the Yards neighborhoods. About 75 percent
of its 360 students are Hispanic, and almost 90 percent qualify for
free or reduced-price lunches, a broadly used measure of
Which means that for a school on a health mission, Namaste
has a tough row to hoe;
more than 40 percent of Hispanic children in
the U.S. are overweight or obese, higher than any other ethnic
group. And people of all ethnicities living in poverty are far more
likely to struggle with obesity, a combination of little access to
fresh produce in inner cities, less leisure time for physical
activity among the working poor, and the simple fact that eating
healthy is expensive.
And so Namaste uses a curriculum that tackles all areas of
healthy living. It starts with the food: There's a salad bar, and a
fruit and a whole grain at every meal. Even the pizzas are made
with low-fat cheese, whole-wheat crust and organic tomato
They also move -- a lot. Students have an hour of gym
every day, yoga once a week and extracurricular activities include
walking clubs and family fitness nights.
Click to enlarge
Preschoolers in Chicago are obese at almost twice the
national average, and in predominantly minority neighborhoods on
the city's southwest side, rates are three to four times the
SOURCE: Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago
Namaste's school day goes until 4 p.m., and kids are in
school year-round, with three one-month breaks. But when the
kids do go home, Namaste makes sure its messages go with
"It's really important that kids aren't only eating
healthy food, but also learning healthy messages so they can make
those decisions outside of school," Slade says. "They're here a lot
less time than they're at home."
Involving parents is at the heart of that effort. Family
fitness nights are a monthly occurrence and on Fridays, parents are
invited in for a catered breakfast. "You can't change a
5-year-old's life without helping their parents change as well,"
And the name? Namaste is a Sanskrit word that, roughly
translated, means "my inner light salutes your inner
"We really wanted to find a name that meant something to
us," Slade says. "It's just a reminder that we value the unique
things that all members bring to our community."
How many second-graders do you know who do yoga, clamor for turkey
burgers, and speak Sanskrit?
"It definitely takes a little getting used to, but we
don't just serve them the food. We do that through nutrition
education," says. "It's really funny to hear the kids say,
"It's turkey burger day!"
See more of Liz's stories here.
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