BAY POINT — Fourteen-year-old Andy Balcazar eats healthy foods and stays physically active because he doesn't want to get diabetes, which runs in his family.
The Riverview Middle School eighth-grader is one of dozens of teens participating in a Mt. Diablo school district after-school program that gets them outdoors to play sports and also gives them opportunities to grow, cook and eat nutritious meals such as squash soup with whole-grain bread.
In all, about 70,000 students statewide are joining them."My dad's a diabetic," Andy said, as he and his friends made bread dough. "I'm worried about it, because diabetes is not a disease you can get rid of."
To help curb the rising incidence of childhood obesity and diabetes — especially in poor areas — the nonprofit Center for Collaborative Solutions began working with after-school programs more than three years ago, providing training and sharing ideas and information. This work culminated Thursday with the creation of 10 Healthy Behaviors Learning Centers with 17 campuses reaching thousands of children. The centers are models for others interested in promoting nutrition and physical activity.
"We hope that we will spread this," said Debra Mason, nutrition program coordinator for the Mt. Diablo program, adding that 1 million children take part in government-funded after-school programs throughout the state. "It's all about children learning to change the world, and we know we can do that one child at a time."
The Riverside Middle and Holbrook Elementary school programs in the Mt. Diablo school district are two of campuses selected to highlight healthy practices that are making a difference in students' lives. Through partnerships with organizations such as the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, the free programs include on-site gardens where students grow vegetables and participate in cooking classes.
The food bank has donated tons of fresh produce to the programs, which families take home, along with recipes. Program evaluations show that students and their families are eating more fruits and vegetables at home than they did before enrolling.
"We have the huge potential of creating change in high-poverty areas," said Andi Fletcher of the Center for Collaborative Solutions. "These are the kids who are the most at risk of very serious health problems."
One out of every three children will get Type 2 diabetes if changes are not made in diet and exercise habits, Fletcher said.
"In many of the areas where we work," she added, "it's one in two."
The Mt. Diablo programs have adopted a strictly enforced no-junk-food rule. Instead, children eat the cauliflower, squash and broccoli they grow in their gardens and cook up delicious meals they encourage their parents to replicate at home.
State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, praised the program, saying he hopes it will catch on throughout California, helping turn around recently released findings that today's youngsters will have shorter life spans than their parents.
"In the last 10 years," he said, "obesity in adults has doubled. But among children, it has tripled."
The program helps prevent obesity and it builds community leaders and a sense of personal responsibility, said Neal Kohatsu, of the state department of public health.
"And you're doing it in such a creative way that it's infectious," he said.
Red peppers, onions and freshly grown squash boiled in a stock pot in the school kitchen, as appetizing aromas wafted through the air.
"I like cooking vegetable soup," said Emani Burks, 13. "I wanted my mom to make it, and she did. She really liked it."
Andy said he appreciates the after-school program, where he learns skills and enjoys hanging out with his friends.
"It's better than being at home and being bored," he said. "They have us outside running around, instead of just watching TV."
Theresa Harrington covers the Mt. Diablo school district. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or email@example.com.