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New Research Demonstrates Feasibility, Best Practices of Creating Healthier Childcare Centers to Prevent Childhood Obesity and Other Chronic Diseases

Peer-Reviewed Journal Highlights Success and Challenges Across Three Years, 900 Centers.

Washington, D.C. — Nearly one-third of children under 5 years old regularly spend time in a childcare center – which makes it a critical place for prevention and to attack the chronic diseases caused by poor nutrition and lack of physical activity. New, original research was released today in the Journal of Translational Behavioral Medicine that highlights ways childcare centers can create healthier environments that help tackle this national health crisis. These findings resulted from a three-year commitment that Learning Care Group (LCG), the second largest for-profit early education and child care organization in the United States, made to the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) to implement several evidence-based nutrition and physical activity policies into its centers.

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In just one year, LCG cut the equivalent of 5 semi trucks of sugar from children’s meals – just by serving more water and drinking less juice.

“As a leader in early childhood education, we have the privilege of helping prepare more than 100,000 children each day for future success,” said Learning Care Group CEO Barbara Beck. “Through our Grow Fit healthy lifestyle program, we are prioritizing nutrition and fitness as a foundation for supporting children’s healthy development and paving the way for a lifetime of healthy habits.”

“Today we are raising the first generation of children who are expected to live shorter, sicker lives than their parents – and it’s absolutely preventable. Nutritious food and more movement are keys to success, and there’s no better time to start than ages 0 to 5,” said Nancy E. Roman, Partnership for a Healthier America President and CEO. “Now with Learning Care Group, we’re scaling and accelerating this great work with intention that all childcare centers are the healthiest environments in the country.”

The research on LCG’s implementation of its healthy lifestyle goals identified five key components to successfully implement early care and education wellness policies: 1) build a comprehensive approach; 2) build the initiative over time; 3) provide structural supports; 4) replace old practices with new ones; and 5) invest in communication.

The research found that through this approach, LCG was able to increase the adoption of certain healthier policies across centers. For example, instituting family-style meals is one of the components that showed the greatest change over time, with implementation increasing from 71% to 99% of centers. As part of building a comprehensive approach and building the initiative over time, LCG updated its Grow Fit manual to include both a rationale for family-style dining as well as a clear definition for what it includes, including staff sitting and eating with children, the children serving themselves (as developmentally appropriate), and teachers encouraging nutritional education conversations.

Additionally, structural supports and replacing old practices meant making the bigger changes a multi-year process. Removing juice began with serving it only three times per week and then eventually transitioning to 100 percent removal. One center said the removal of juice helped serve more fresh fruit at snack time. Open, consistent communication was also key, because at first parents questioned why juice was eliminated, but building more “parent nights” and time with the children’s caregivers proved effective.

“I think the secret to their success was the fact that all of the new practices were part of a larger vision of the type of child care center they wanted to provide to children and families. If the big-picture goal is to help children eat nutritious foods and be physically active, it is easier to communicate and implement each of the individual changes,” said Marlene B. Schwartz, PHD, Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences.

The most controversial policies typically were the ones that involve taking something away. For example, many parents initially challenged the schools’ healthy celebrations policy (e.g., not bringing sugary desserts for birthday parties), but LCG provided several resources to support the policy including a “Grow Fit Celebrations Guide” that included dozens of ideas and recipes for healthier celebrations. The centers got creative with encouraging trinkets such as pencils and stickers to share as treats in lieu of unhealthy treats. They also helped parents understand that every celebration should have two key elements: movement and healthy food choices.

About the study
This is the first mixed-methods study of approximately 900 centers around the country that combines: (a) quantitative center director survey data to document the prevalence of nutrition and physical activity related practices at 6, 18, and 36 months; (b) qualitative survey data to capture center director perceptions of the facilitators, barriers, and reactions to specific policy changes from key stakeholder groups; © qualitative findings from key informant interviews with LCG national leaders to describe the strategies used to implement a comprehensive set of nutrition and physical activity policies; and (d) data from a review of policy and implementation documents. The study was funded by the Partnership for a Healthier America.

About Learning Care Group
Learning Care Group is a leader in early child education, with more than 50 years of experience in inspiring children to love learning. Headquartered in Novi, Mich., the company provides early education and care for children ages 6 weeks to 12 years through seven unique brands: Childtime Learning Centers, The Children’s Courtyard, Creative Kids Learning Centers, Everbrook Academy, La Petite Academy, Montessori Unlimited, and Tutor Time Child Care/Learning Centers. It operates more than 900 schools (corporate and franchise) across 36 states, the District of Columbia and internationally, and has a capacity to serve more than 130,000 children. Learning Care Group’s proprietary School Readiness Pathway supports the development of the academic and social skills needed for a smooth transition to elementary school. For more information, please visit www.learningcaregroup.com

About Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity
The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut is a multidisciplinary center dedicated to promoting solutions to childhood obesity, poor diet, and weight bias through research and policy. For more information, visit www.uconnruddcenter.org, follow us on Twitter, or on Facebook.

About Partnership for a Healthier America
PHA’s mission is to leverage the power of the private sector to bring lasting systemic changes that improve the food supply, increase healthy choices, increase physical activity and contribute to a culture of health. In 2010, PHA was created in conjunction with—but independent from—Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! effort. PHA identifies, accelerates and celebrates voluntary business practices that improve or increase choice or lead to new norms and behavior around food and physical activity. For more information about PHA, please visit www.ahealthieramerica.org and follow PHA on Twitter @PHAnews.

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