“I think they just ‘understand’ food is food,” said Josh Rivera, Tucker Unit’s fitness and health staff. “I don’t think they really understand anything about the nutrition behind it.”
One story in particular highlights the need for increased health education. Rivera said he asked one of his groups to list five fruits. Several students quickly uttered “apple,” before a hush fell. A couple of seconds passed before one member said, “asparagus.”
“In their lives, there is no explanation of this is what is good for you and this is why it is good for you,” Rivera said.
Britt DeBusk, Tucker Unit director, agreed with Rivera.
“Health is not a priority in today’s society. You see McDonald’s commercials and billboards for fast food, and there is nothing wrong with McDonald’s, but you can’t eat it every day. A lot of kids, that is what they had to eat for supper,” DeBusk said. “We want to let them know why they don’t want to eat it every day, and the effects. It is OK to go to McDonalds, but don’t get it supersized and don’t get a big Coke to go with it.”
For this reason, Clevelands’ clubs have set health and fitness as a focus. Members at the Tucker Unit cycle through the gym every Wednesday for a health lesson as set forth by the Healthy Habits curriculum. Rivera then reminds the youth of these lessons throughout the week.
Fitness is also incorporated alongside Healthy Habits. A recent grant awarded through the Bradley County Health Council and provided by the Tennessee Department of Health provided the clubs with $10,000.
Eloise Waters, Bradley County Health Department director, said the grant was for wellness and prevention.
“When the [state department] has money for it, they will send out a proposal and then anybody who wants to try and apply for it can send in their papers,” Waters said. “A committee then evaluates it and looks for the goals they set, if they are measurable or not and what their plans are to implement the money.”
DeBusk said the club tried to spread the money as much as possible. At the Tucker Unit, a climbing wall was placed alongside one wall and three pieces of exercise equipment were added to the back field: a pull-up bar set with three levels, parallel bars and monkey bars. Kits with items like kickballs, small hurdles, jump ropes and hula hoops were also provided to each unit.
Both men agreed the trick is to engage the students in physical activity without their realization. Most members see the new pieces of equipment as another place to play and have fun.
“We try and make [fitness] into a competition, because if it is not a competition at this age, then they are not interested,” Rivera said. “Yesterday, we chose someone who would be their buddy. Someone who will cheer them up and push them on.”
Rivera and DeBusk said the staff do their best to model healthy eating and fitness habits.
“I think with the right staff we have here, getting the healthy habits and getting children active is something we can achieve,” Rivera said. “We have such a tight staff that really wants to be active and better themselves. The kids see that.”