NCSU’s Natural Learning Initiative teams with BCBS to target obesity in kids


Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s foundation is starting a $3 million, three-year effort to fight obesity in young children.

Executives with the foundation funded by the state’s largest health insurer will announce the initiative with officials from the N.C. Partnership for Children this morning in Charlotte.

The program, Shape NC: Healthy Starts for Young Children, will focus on kids through age 5 by working to improve nutrition and encourage physical activity at the state’s 5,000 licensed day care centers.

Some children spend 10 hours a day or more in such settings, where they eat at least two meals and two snacks. Some of the money will provide more training and resources so that child care teachers can promote healthy behaviors during early years.

“It is a great way to get at this group of young children who we see every day,” said Stephanie Fanjul, president of the N.C. Partnership for Children, which oversees the state’s Smart Start program. “It’s a beginning, but it’s a pretty substantive beginning.”

Shape NC will build on the work of other programs, including Smart Start, which collaborates with more than 70 local nonprofits across the state, and Be Active Kids, another Blue Cross effort focused on childhood physical activity. Other partners include researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and at N.C. State University.

NCSU’s Natural Learning Initiative, for example, helps child care centers provide more outdoor stimulation, which could include growing vegetable gardens or planting trees to provide shade and allow more time outside during the hot months. The idea is that exposing children to nature will spur more physical activity and healthier eating.

“It’s really encouraging to see a major insurer getting on board with this,” said Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative, part of the NCSU College of Design.

Through its foundation, Blue Cross uses such efforts partly to improve its image and offset negative perceptions about its premiums and policies.

The Chapel Hill-based insurer, which has 3.7 million members across the state, is also trying to reduce the costs associated with treating obese children and adults.

Nearly 17 percent of U.S. medical costs can be blamed on obesity, or about $168 billion a year, according to a study released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study found that being obese adds more than $2,800 to a person’s annual medical bills.

N.C. rates 5th-fattest

North Carolina has the fifth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country, and 31 percent of children ages 2 to 4 are overweight or at risk for becoming overweight, according to Shape NC’s organizers.

“This is a special opportunity to ensure more children will have a chance to have a healthy start,” said Kathy Higgins, president of the Blue Cross foundation. “The problem didn’t happen overnight and it will take a long-term effort to really move the needle as it relates to childhood obesity.”

The foundation will consider further investment in the program if the results show improvements, Higgins added. One goal will be to develop statewide policy to reduce obesity and improve children’s health.

Formed in 2000, the Blue Cross foundation invests about $10 million a year in various efforts to improve the health of people in North Carolina.

Linked to Clinton effort

The Shape NC program is tied to similar efforts by the Clinton Global Initiative. Blue Cross CEO Brad Wilson, who also is the Blue Cross foundation’s chairman, met briefly with former President Bill Clinton in New York last month to discuss the program.

Having the Clinton foundation involved “brings an additional level of accountability, to make sure we’re showing some real results,” Wilson said.

He added that Clinton was charming and had an “incredible command of the facts” about the problem of childhood obesity.

Wilson said he’s also hoping to attract the attention of a current White House resident: first lady Michele Obama, who has made fighting childhood obesity one of her top goals.

“We’re hoping to get her down here to see what we’re doing,” he added.


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