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Cooking, Health Education, Fitness, and Fun! My Day as a CHEFF.

by Caitlin McFeely, Communications Associate, Children's Health Fund

When I was growing up, I was lucky to have a safe place to play outdoors with my family and friends. Kickball, hide and seek, wiffle ball, you name it. We got to run around, get some exercise, and have fun in the kind of environment I’d hope every kid has access to.

But childhood for kids living in homeless shelters isn’t much like mine was. They struggle daily with stressful experiences that have a lasting effect on their development and ability to learn and play. They also experience higher rates of acute and chronic health problems.

This past week, as I walked to one of the homeless shelters in the Bronx, served by the health care team from CHF’s New York Children’s Health Project (NYCHP), I wondered, “where do the local kids go to play after school”? Is there a park or youth center nearby? Are the obesity rates in this area higher because there aren’t any places to go?

Luckily for the children at this particular shelter (one of many shelters that welcome the great education programs developed by NYCHP’s nutrition team…see my blog about nutrition and microwave cooking), Vicky Stein and her team come every other week to conduct CHEFFs class. CHEFF stands for Cooking, Health Education, Fitness and Fun. It is an after-school program that teaches the children living in homeless shelters about proper nutrition, exercise, and overall healthy living.

The class I attended focused on physical activity and the differences between low-impact activity and high-impact activity. The kids learned that low-impact activities consist of exercises like yoga or lifting weights and high-impact activities were things like running or jumping jacks. We all did a test to see how our pulse differs after doing 10 curl-ups and 10 jumping jacks (the jumping jacks made our heart beat much higher!). The class ended with smoothie-making and we stuck to this month’s “Eating Right with Color” theme by adding raspberries and blueberries into the smoothie mix (with surprisingly little hesitation from the kids).

During the hour long class, I got a glimpse into the personalities of the kids that were attending. One little boy, Daniel*, really caught my attention. Daniel was around 5 or 6 and to describe him in one word…ACTIVE. He was practically bouncing off the walls from the moment we entered the classroom. When Vicky explained the plan for the class, he voiced how each part was his ‘favorite’. Yoga – “Oh that’s my favorite!”…Smoothies – “Yum!! Those are my favorite”…Jumping Jacks – “Ohh I can do those, they are my favorite.” He was so genuinely excited to participate in everything, sometimes to the annoyance of his older brother Andrew*, who seemed to be the more quiet/reasonable of the two boys. Andrew was charming in his own way (I loved when he told Daniel to listen to and not interrupt Vicky) and had a great memory about the things he had learned in previous lessons. He even gave me a boisterous “Good-bye Miss Caitlin!!” when I left…I was shocked he even remembered my name!

By attending this class throughout the school year, these children living in the homeless shelter learn that it is important to eat healthy and remain physically active. More importantly, the children benefit greatly from the stress-reducing effects of exercise, play and having a safe place to go to afterschool.

Thanks to Vicky and team for letting me join your class. I’m lucky to have experienced this day with you all and learn that kids living in homeless shelters or poor areas can find ways to stay fit and be healthy…they just need someone to show them how.

*To protect the patient’s privacy, names have been changed.