Back in 2016-17, the Sussex County Child Health Crisis Work Group reported the body mass index (BMI) data was gathered from 27 out of 30 public schools in Sussex County.
Using U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention standards, the report said that out of 6,867 students:
● 2,143 were overweight (34%)
● 1,042 students were obese (15.2%)
● 713 students were morbidly obese (10.4%)
The work group is led by Debbie Fischer, a retired Sussex-Wantage school nurse, and Jennifer Cenatiempo, superintendent of Lafayette School District. Fisher said the group’s goal is to have most schools in Sussex County develop Wellness Committees. The group also emphasizes the importance of healthy eating in schools and physical activity for students.
“Instead of celebrating students’ birthdays and parties with sugary food items, we want to encourage non-food items for the celebrations,” Fisher said. “Another goal is for the students to choose healthier snacks for dessert, such as fresh fruit, or only purchase one snack instead of two after eating a healthy lunch.”
A “Be a School Wellness Champion” flyer was given out to all parents to support their children in making healthy food choices while in school. Fisher said a resource guide was sent to all school districts in Sussex County, with programs and strategies that promote good nutrition and physical activity habits — not only for children, but for staff and parents as well.
Cenatiempo said she came up with an idea that she named “Project Positivity.”
“This idea that I had came about because I realized that we needed to do something more for our colleagues, and it grew from there,” she said. “I work with educators every day, and this year I saw their level of stress.”
It was then that she decided to bring Project Positivity to the North Jersey Health Collaborative Team, a multi-sector partnership of more than 100 organizations working together to create meaningful change in the health of communities in Sussex, Passaic, Morris, Union and Warren counties.
Cenatiempo told the team that educators need support as well.
“The primary focus has always been working with children, but the pandemic really shined a light on a need for supervised support for our colleagues in the field,” she said.
Cenatiempo asked the committee for their support, and they agreed. She created a meeting and sent invitations out to all the schools. The first session was in December.
“We had Sussex Wantage teachers and Lafayette teachers present ideas and strategies, and since it was so well received, we had a second session in March,” Cenatiempo said.
Vernon and Sparta teachers attended the March session.
“It’s a plan for educators by educators who are doing this type of work and they shared the best practices of what they are doing,” said Cenatiempo. “There is so much good that is happening in all our school districts.”
’A very diverse group’
By creating Project Positivity the committee was able to reach people across Sussex County. The December and March sessions “had a really nice response, which attests to the fact that people are looking for support, to hear other people’s ideas and to see what other school districts are doing,” Cenatiempo said.
School social workers, psychologists, counselors, members from the child study teams, administrators, and teachers were among the professionals that attended the sessions.
“It was a very diverse group,” Cenatiempo said. “It is so important for teachers to be able to have a platform where they can empower and support one another because they have worked so hard. This year has been probably the most challenging year in the field that I have seen in 20 years.”
The presentation in December was from members of the Snap Ed-Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program.
“The purpose of Project Positivity is about giving the people in the different districts support, because often the people who are the cheerleaders for everybody else do not have an empowerment group for themselves,” Cenatiempo said. “And then the educators start to get to a point where they are feeling downtrodden or unsupported and then it’s very hard to be resilient. A big part of the work is to provide simple actual strategies and tips for resilience.”
She will be discussing Project Positivity and the North Jersey Health Collaborative’s goals at the next Sussex County roundtable meeting, which will be attended by all superintendents and administrators in the county.
The Sussex County Child Health Crisis Work Group meets once a month and will continue to discuss new projects, goals, and updates in the following months.
“The purpose of Project Positivity is about giving the people in the different districts support, because often the people who are the cheerleaders for everybody else do not have an empowerment group for themselves,” Cenatiempo said. “And then the educators start to get to a point where they are feeling downtrodden or unsupported and then it’s very hard to be resilient. A big part of the work is to provide simple actual strategies and tips for resilience.” Lafayette Superintendent Jennifer Cenatiempo