Newark students joined in on the fight against one of the nation's biggest epidemics this year as part of Johnson & Johnson's six-month anti-childhood obesity campaign.
The New Jersey-based health care giant launched Gateway to a Healthy Community - Healthier Kids program last school year in Newark, Atlanta, Houston and Philadelphia, pairing psychical activity with in-classroom instruction. From January to June 2012, nearly 28,000 students in grades K-3, including those from Newark's Park Elementary School, burned 61 million-plus calories in just 85 classroom days.
"Schools are where children spend the majority of their time," said Anthony Carter, Johnson & Johnson's vice president and chief diversity office, in a press release. "Therefore, any effort to address childhood obesity and diabetes must include schools as the fundamental point of entry to prevent and decrease excess weight problems and the unhealthy outcomes associated with them."
During a recap of the program Tuesday morning at the North Ward School, officials painted a grim picture of public health: 17 percent of those ages 2-19 years were considered obese in 2007-08, according to Center for Disease Control statistics. And a staggering total of overweight or obese youngsters reside in cities with high minority populations, like Newark.
In order to combat childhood obesity, students participated in Johnson & Johnson's "activity works" program, curriculum-based video and audio episodes that provide a 12-minute exercise burst in classrooms.
Young students at Park Elementary School got a fun and educational boost of exercise by "traveling" through European countries. In one of the exercises, students had to use their muscles to straighten the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
"Kids usually just sit and watch TV," said eighth grader Jahlin Fernandez, who helped teach some of the activities. "They're learning that exercise is not a boring thing."
The older students also instruct the youngsters on healthy eating in their very own cafeteria.
Targeting childhood obesity has been paramount for Mayor Cory Booker, who serves as co-chair of First Lady Michelle Obama's national "Let's Move!" campaign. Last year, more than 1,500 city freshmen slimmed down through the Let's Move! Newark: Our Power initiative, which outfitted each student with a device that tracked levels of physical activity.
In February, Let's Move! Newark partnered with Nestle to launch a two-year pilot program to promote healthier lifestyles starting in early childhood.
Booker has said previously that as much as 40 percent of Newark youth are overweight or obese.
"That's what this Gateway is all about," said Booker. "It's about being there on the front lines in our classrooms activating our kids' whole body transformation. Because in Newark we do have a problem. Obesity in our kids is almost at an epidemic proportion."