RWJF's New Jersey Health Initiatives Program: STEPS for Kids

Emily Turnure relates how the program approaches the fight against childhood obesity.

South Jersey Healthcare (SJH) was awarded a three-year grant (2007-2010) from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) through its New Jersey Health Initiatives program. The funds were used to establish STEPS (Success through Exercise, Physical fitness and Sharing information) a community-based child obesity program developed through a partnership between SJH, a local school district and the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA.

Cumberland County ranks lowest of all 21 New Jersey counties in health outcomes, health factors, health behaviors (i.e., tobacco use, diet, exercise, alcohol use and sexually transmitted infections), social and economic factors and physical environment (NJ County Health Rankings, 2012). Residents of this county fall below state averages in education, with only 79 percent of the population having a high school diploma, compared to 89 percent statewide.

The grant allowed SJH and its partners to bring to life a program that would be dedicated to the children and parents of our community who truly needed help to fight an epidemic in our community. The STEPS programming has given the children of Cumberland County a choice in changing their health and promotes the involvement of the parents as role models for our children.

The STEPS program follows the format of the Health Intervention Program (HIP) developed by the YMCA of Brandywine Valley, Pa. HIP is a 12-week program for children ages 8 through 12 with a body mass index (BMI) at or above the 85th percentile for their age and gender. Parent participation is required.

The STEPS program meets weekly in Vineland and Bridgeton, N.J. During each class, an exercise specialist engages children in interactive activities; a nutrition expert discusses healthy food choices; and parents receive information on how to make family lifestyle changes in diet and exercise that addresses their child’s obesity and overall health. Pre- and post-fitness evaluations are performed on the children to assess program effectiveness. Over the three-year grant (2007-2010), 190 children, plus parents and guardians, were enrolled in the program with about 60 percent completion rate. Of those, about 27 percent were African American/Black, 36 percent Hispanic and 36 percent non-Hispanic white. More than half of the children completing the program had lower BMI.

Since completion of the grant, SJH has assumed full support for the program. In 2011 and 2012, an additional 174 children, plus parents, enrolled in the program with a 54 percent completion rate. The National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ) has modified the Childhood Obesity Chronic Care Model to make it specific to children’s health care. The result is a conceptual framework for child health that has been used in many of NICHQ’s Obesity Chronic Care Model programs. The STEPS program won the 2010 award for Outstanding Contributor to Childhood Obesity Program from NICHQ as well as a Community Fitness Innovation Award for the American Heart Association.

Awards aside, it is the faces of the children and parents alike at each graduation ceremony that captures the success of this program. Children who complete the program receive a graduation certificate, STEPS T-shirt, and a sports gift.

Photos are taken and everyone enjoys a nutritious food tasting. Both children and parents ask to repeat to the program. The program is fun, interactive and everyone learns how to make healthier choices.