Fifth-grader DeVonte’ Loyd wore a shy smile on his face as he posed with his new green BMX bike as cameras flashed and children and staff applauded in the crowded cafeteria of Aurora’s Side Creek Elementary School on a recent Friday morning.
The 10-year-old was the first winner of a big-ticket prize through 5th Gear Kids, a wellness program for fifth-graders launched last fall in the Aurora and Cherry Creek school districts. By playing football, running track and choosing healthy foods, DeVonte’ racked up the 20,000 points needed for the bike.
While 5th Gear Kids includes curriculum on balancing calorie intake with calorie expenditures, it relies heavily on incentives to change behavior. In addition to offering appealing prizes like bikes, basketballs and tickets to sporting events, the program aims to use grocery store and restaurant discounts to leverage healthy choices among students and their families.
In fact, that’s part of the reason the program focuses on the age group it does.
Dr. James Hill, leader of 5th Gear Kids and executive director of Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, said one key characteristic of fifth-graders is “they begin to have some discretionary money and some say over how family money is spent.”
Hill sees them as “agents of change” within a family, influencing both siblings and parents. In DeVonte’s case, his participation in the program nudged his family to adjust its grocery shopping habits a bit. His mother, Akida Norman-Loyd, said her family has always eaten relatively healthy, but 5th Gear Kids prompted them to buy more fresh produce.
She said DeVonte’ now examines the “NuVal” scores of food when they shop at King Soopers, where buying items with higher-than-average scores is one way to earn points.
“He actually looks at the scores. Before he would just go in and ask for things,” she said.
Studying the impact
5th Gear Kids is funded with a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation, and also receives support from corporate sponsors, including King Soopers and McDonalds and Leprino Foods. Since the grant requires an evaluation of the program’s impact, staff plan to examine participation levels, student knowledge and student behaviors, including school attendance and academic success.
They also hope to track students’ body mass indices from the start of the program through eighth grade. Hill, who is currently applying for additional funding from the Colorado Health Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture, said more money may allow 5th Gear Kids to offer curriculum “boosters” and prizes to middle-schoolers.
Currently, about 30 percent of eligible fifth-graders in Aurora and Cherry Creek are participating in 5th Gear Kids.
“For a new program, 30 percent isn’t bad,” said Hill. “My goal is 100 percent. I think this is such a no-brainer for kids and families.”
Kenny Webb, 5th Gear Kids grant coordinator for Aurora Public Schools, said while kids seem to be buying into the program, “Our big push for year two is how we make that connection with parents.”
Fast food sponsorship
While one might not expect McDonalds to sign on for a program promoting healthy eating, it is one of several restaurants that has partnered with 5th Gear Kids. Participants can earn 75 points, and at some franchises receive a discount, by buying one of three “5th Gear Kids” meals, one with chicken McNuggets, one with a hamburger and one with a honey mustard snack wrap. All include apple slices, two include side salads and one includes fries.
Webb said with a McDonalds on practically every corner in the district, the decision to include the fast food chain is about being realistic.
“We know that the kids are eating there and we just want to reward them for making the healthiest choice they can.”
Hill said, “We’re not promoting McDonalds. What we’re doing is teaching kids skills they need to manage their weight…If we’re not working with places like McDonalds, we’re not reaching them where they are.”
In addition to McDonalds, 5th Gear participants can earn points, and sometimes discounts, for ordering certain meals at Arby’s, Red Robin, Subway and several other chains. Various gyms, sports organizations and public recreation programs also award points and discounts.
Hill said he gets calls from businesses interested in partnering with 5th Gear Kids all the time.
“My dream is that everywhere you go in the community, there’s the opportunity to get points,” he said.
Hill also hopes to expand the program, which is designed to be accessible to students in any socioeconomic status, to many more school districts, in Colorado and beyond.
“We literally have inquiries from all over the world,” he said.
Next year, Hill said organizers plan to continue the program for the 6,700 fifth-graders in Cherry Creek and Aurora, working to fine-tune the logistics. The following year, he hopes to expand the program to any district that can find funding for it. This year, it costs about $1 million, but Hill said that amount covers implementation in the two districts as well as the research component.