Inslee talks up kids' health at Yakima YMCA

YAKIMA, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee flew to Yakima late Monday afternoon to highlight a few local health programs aimed at childhood obesity, part of his "Healthiest Next Generation" initiative.

"We're really impressed with Yakima," Inslee said during a tour of the Yakima Family YMCA, during which he met with leaders from various community and health organizations, including Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, the Yakima Health District and organizations for drug and gang intervention.

Healthiest Next Generation was part of Inslee's requested legislation during the 2014 supplemental budget session. Its three goals are healthy early learning environments, healthy school environments and breastfeeding-friendly environments, targeting some of the causes of childhood obesity at different stages in a child's life.

Combating childhood obesity, diabetes and drug and alcohol use "is an all-hands-on-deck issue," Inslee said. "We need all of these groups to work together to give young people multiple options."

The governor also took a few minutes after his tour to play basketball in the gym with local kids.

The Legislature included $350,000 this year for Inslee's initiative, which has paid for staff members at the Department of Health, Department of Early Learning and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to collaborate in evaluating programs across the state to see which have proven most effective at the local level.

One program they like is a joint effort by the Yakima Family YMCA and Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital. Actively Changing Together, or the ACT program, accepts overweight and obese kids ages 8-14 through physician referrals, then works with the kids and their families on learning healthy eating habits and increasing physical activity. Memorial nutritionists and YMCA coaches tag-team in weekly sessions to get the whole family learning about healthy lifestyle choices together.

Memorial has several wellness programs for adults, including classes for diabetes prevention and chronic disease management. But more resources for kids are needed, said Bertha Lopez, community education director at the hospital.

"I think there should be collaboration between sectors. I don't necessarily think there needs to be more obesity programs, for example; I think there needs to be a system change," Lopez said. That means working with school districts, housing, and most importantly, parents, since they're the ones making choices for their kids, she said. It also means targeting social determinants of health like poverty and food insecurity that pose barriers to healthy choices in day-to-day life.

However, funding for community-based programs like ACT isn't going to come through the governor's initiative, said policy adviser Jason McGill in Inslee's office. The initiative focuses more on school-based programs because staff hopes to secure some grant funding through next year's capital budget. Community-based programs will have better luck going through the Health Care Authority for Medicaid dollars, McGill said.

The Council for the Healthiest Next Generation, a multisector committee formed to prioritize the programs identified by the initiative staff, has compiled a list of 10 effective programs it is recommending for expansion to more school districts and communities around the state.

No money has gone to local programs yet, but McGill says the hope is that once they make concrete recommendations on which programs could be successful on a wider scale, they'll be able to include some funding for those programs in the 2015 budget. Inslee has to make final recommendations on which items to include in his budget proposal by mid-December.

The list includes a program to install water bottle filling stations in schools, something the YMCA statewide is working on, as a way to encourage students to drink more water. Other priorities include getting school districts to meet state standards for health and fitness education, and establishing safer routes to school so kids can walk or bike and get physical activity that way.

Another Yakima County program the initiative team likes is from health and fitness teacher Doris Dorr at Toppenish High School. Several years ago, Dorr started a secret exercise group for overweight and obese high school girls who were hesitant to join other school sports. Her efforts have helped dozens of students become comfortable with exercise and get their weight to a healthy level. In fact, this fall, she didn't hold the exercise program, because the high school's fitness programs have improved to the point that only two or three girls would have qualified for Dorr's group anyway.

On his tour of the YMCA, Inslee took a few minutes to honor Dorr, proclaiming her "Washingtonian of the Day" and pinning a governor's pin on her in recognition of the work she's done with her girls in Toppenish.

"Doris is sort of a unique teacher wouldn't it be great to have more of Doris around?" McGill said earlier Monday. "But we could have more of her programs." That's the point of the initiative, he said: "This is just to scale up and expand these programs."

Securing specific dollars for these programs will be difficult in a deficit year with the McCleary decision to more fully fund education looming over legislators' heads, but Inslee's still optimistic.

Even if the Healthiest Next Generation "brand" isn't on it, he said, "There's going to be a lot of creativity allowed in local school districts" in how they implement the increased funds from McCleary, and schools can put those resources toward programs that promote health for their students.

"Healthy children have better test scores," Inslee said. "We're trying to the extent possible to get resources to help kids perform better academically, by performing better physically."

And that's going to require thinking outside the box and working together to offer a wide range of options for kids to meet their various needs.

"This is not a silver bullet," Inslee said, pausing outside the racquetball court at the Y. "It's silver buckshot."

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