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Community Story

A Community Chooses Water First for Thirst

Food marketing to children WIC Ohio


October 10th, 2019


In the capital city of Columbus, Ohio, where about 1 in 4 kids who enter kindergarten are overweight or have obesity, advocates and organizations have been working together to provide kids with the earliest possible opportunities to develop healthy habits. That means focusing on kids from birth to age 5.

For example, the Growing Healthy Kids Columbus Coalition (GHKC) aims to help kids enter kindergarten at a healthy weight and help families develop lasting healthy lifestyles. GHKC is facilitated by the Columbus Public Health in partnership with Ohio State University Extension, and was initially funded by the Ohio Department of Health.

“One of the key messages we put out is: if you’re thirsty, water is the best choice.”

Bobbi Shannon, Executive Director of Early Learning, YMCA Of Central Ohio

Columbus is Making Waves with Water First for Thirst

In 2009, GHKC launched Columbus’ Water First for Thirst Campaign to help make water the easy, appealing, and first beverage choice for children and families across the city.

The campaign is working to encourage toddlers to drink water instead of sugary drinks–such as soda, energy drinks and sweetened powder drink mixes. It’s focused on reaching minority communities and families who participate in WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

When the campaign started, about 40% of Ohio’s third graders drank two or more sugary drinks each day, a habit that has been strongly linked to increased risk of overweight, obesity and diabetes. Today, the campaign has been embraced across the state by communities from all walks of life and implemented in more than 23 counties.

The impact is far reaching. At many events, only water or unsweetened beverages are served, instead of fruit punch, soda, or flavored drinks. At outdoor events, you might find water coolers or dispensers. Since 2009, all beverage vending machines located in student areas of Columbus City Schools sell only water. In 2011, Nationwide Children’s Hospital eliminated all sugary drinks from their campus and reduced the price of bottled water. And in 2012, the Columbus Public Health department eliminated all sugary drinks from its vending machines.

And it doesn’t end there. From farmers markets to daycares to afterschool programs, the Water First for Thirst Campaign is continuing to make waves.

Fresh Fruit, Vegetables and Water at the Farmers Market

On a few summer mornings in July and August, Columbus locals make their way to the Farmers’ Market hosted by Ohio’s WIC Program, right outside the doors of the Columbus Department of Public Health,  where they find not only fresh fruit and vegetables, but also where community members, families and kids can learn about the benefits of choosing water first for thirst. Residents who participate in WIC and  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are welcomed with $20 coupon vouchers that they can use at this and any other local farmers markets.

“Our WIC and SNAP participants have a safe, healthy environment to come get fresh fruits and vegetables, learn about breastfeeding education and nutrition education.” – Dawn Sweet, RD, LD, WIC Director, Franklin County WIC

Together, GHKC and Franklin County’s WIC office have booths set up at the farmers market to educate passersby about the benefits of drinking water, as well as engage people in an eye-opening activity about how much sugar is in sugary drinks. In 2018, GHKC attended over 40 events to educate communities of color about the amount of added sugars in commonly marketed products in their neighborhoods. They are working to empower residents to take notice of the recommended amounts of sugar in these drinks, compared to recommended daily amounts of added sugar. This was a shocking experience for many community residents, both children and adults, leading some to take action in learning about their current health. For example, one resident was made aware of the amount of added sugar in a beverage he commonly drank, which led him to get his blood sugar checked and learned that he was diabetic.

“Water First for Thirst is a great, simple way for families to make one affordable decision to drink more water and to make that one step to being a little bit healthier.”

Hannah Bills, MS, LD, RDN, Growing Healthy Kids Program Director, Columbus Public Health.

Water for Little Buckeyes

At the Little Buckeye Learning Center, children are given three meals a day—breakfast, lunch and snack– full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course, plenty of water. For many kids at Little Buckeye, this might be the only time they’re able to try new, healthy foods. And they love it.

“We provide water throughout the day and we really want kids to stay hydrated so they’ll be healthier and active, and play and learn.” Crystal Love – Toddler Classroom Lead Teacher, Little Buckeye Learning Center

Little Buckeyes partners with GHKC and Water First for Thirst to make sure kids get plenty of water to drink along with their meals, so that they have the fuel to lead active, healthy lives.

Choosing Water First at the YMCA

At the YMCA KIPP Early Learning Center in Columbus, Executive Director of Early Learning Bobbi Shannon relishes the opportunity to make a positive impact on the children who come through the doors every weekday—many of whom spend up to 11 hours a day there. Bobbi’s ongoing work with GHKC, which began a decade ago, has inspired her to make sure that these kids, 96% of whom are considered low-income, have the chance every single day to learn, be active, eat healthy foods, and drink water first for thirst.

“With the families we serve, we need to make sure that kids come in with their basic needs met and that they’re at their prime for learning. I feel that it all goes hand in hand—we’re looking at the whole child, and by extension, the whole family. And if their needs outside the classroom aren’t met, they’ll carry into the classroom. So we’re in a perfect position to try to address both of those.” – Bobbi Shannon, Executive Director of Early Learning, YMCA Of Central Ohio

Drinking water, healthy foods and active play are a regular part of the curriculum at the YMCA. Kids go outside every day and even when they’re inside learning, there’s always an active component to lessons. Even parties are celebrated with healthy food and physical activity.

And thanks to GHKC’s Water First for Thirst, that message is being heard throughout Columbus. And with kids and families reaching for water instead of sugary drinks, there’s promise of healthier, happier communities all across Ohio.

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