Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Why does the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs care if a child eats an apple?

Because the alliance is trying to change the world. Instead of couches and chips, the alliance is working to expose children to more fresh food and physical activity.

One goal is to protect kids from obesity and developing obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

But this effort may well do a lot more. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, healthier students are better learners. Better learners are more likely to graduate from high school. And “Better-educated individuals live longer, healthier lives than those with less education, and their children are more likely to thrive,” according to a policy brief from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In other words, kids who habitually eat apples and ride bikes could be laying a foundation for decades of success – for themselves and their descendants.

What’s the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCA’s doing with this information?

Bringing it to the preschool arena.

Using grant funds from Voices for Healthy Kids, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association, the alliance is calling for pre-K programs to promote the health of very young children — so that they can grow up to be very prosperous adults.

Specifically, the alliance wants state officials to include a portion of the Healthy Eating and Physical Activity standards in the quality ratings system (QRIS) for early education centers in Massachusetts.

The need is significant. Offering a sobering example, the alliance points to obesity rates, explaining, “According to a study conducted by the CDC and the USDA, the obesity rate among 2-to-4-year-old WIC participants was 16.6% from 2000-2014.

“That means that 16.6% of children are at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and several other life-threatening conditions.”

(WIC — the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — is a federal program that supports low-income mothers, infants, and children up to age five.)

The threats of malnourishment and disease are particularly damaging for infant, toddlers, and young children because they are at a stage of life that should ideally include intensive brain development. If a child’s brain development is compromised, so is his or her ability to learn.

As the alliance points out, “research has demonstrated that poor nutrition has profound negative impacts on memory capacity, behavioral outcomes, attentional outcomes, emotion regulation, and nervous system functioning.” Children saddled with these problems can go on to struggle as adults.

When’s the best time to start promoting the importance of young children’s health?

In a statement, the alliance says: “We believe now presents a great opportunity to promote change and foster healthier environments for children to prosper both individually and academically.”