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Raising healthy Petaluma children

Audel Moreno broke into a wide smile as he stared up at a towering sunflower, taking a moment to regard the stately stalk before stooping to pick a pepper from a nearby plant.

Moreno, 10, plopped the vegetable into a plastic cup before stepping back as the rest of his peers foraged for light green peppers hidden in the foliage in the Petaluma Health Center’s community garden.

Moreno was among a group of about a dozen children gathered Thursday afternoon in the garden brimming with summertime bounty as part of a weekly Petaluma Health Center’s “Petaluma Loves Active Youth,” a program aimed at helping kids struggling with their weight maintain healthy lifestyles. The 7-year-old initiative brings parents and their children between the ages of 5 and 13 to the health center for an hour-long session that’s equal parts kid-friendly exercise and hands-on education centered on healthy habits.

Every other week, the group takes a break from the garden to head to the center’s demonstration kitchen, where they learn to cook a healthy new recipe, such as lettuce wraps or cheesy protein chips.

Moreno’s mother, Ana Perez, watched her son and 4-year-old daughter as they played and listened patiently to Yoli Merklin, the center’s wellness supervisor and Hepatitis C coordinator, as she led the children on a tour of the garden and pointed out herbs and vegetables for sampling.

Moreno has a higher than normal body mass index, and Perez has been bringing him to the group for about a month to help encourage healthy eating and exercise.

“It helps them know how to eat healthier things,” she said. “He loves to play.”

The classes are open to health center patients and are billed as a medical visit. Vitals are recorded to measure progress though the program, and a health care provider, a nutritionist and a therapist also help facilitate.

“We believe in hands on – this is modeled on that. It’s not only just on what need you to do, we’re going to show you what we feel is needed to change,” Merklin said. “We also decided to bring them together to help make those changes and assist in that process rather than just being with the parent or meeting with the child.”

Isabel Schultze-Tikfesi, 7, urged her mother to skip a camping trip so the pair could attend the class. “I really like the playing,” she said.

The program, which was launched in an effort to counter a trend of childhood obesity in Petaluma, has helped spark change in the community, Merklin said. Numbers for parents and children who have attended the drop-in programs weren’t available, but it has impacted the lives of many, she said.

“There are definitely high success rates,” Merklin said. “We treat this as a medical visit – we are looking at their BMIS and medical condition while they’re here and we are seeing a drop in BMIs and we are seeing families making those changes and we’re introducing new concepts to them.”

Still, throughout Sonoma County, 17.5 percent of youth are obese, while 20 percent are overweight, according to a 2016 health needs assessment. Nationally, 17 percent of children are obese, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Novato resident Elizabeth Rodriguez, whose 10-year-old daughter Camila Jimenez is grappling with high cholesterol, the class is a welcome way to have fun while learning key lessons. Together, they’ve made tweaks to eating habits that have helped Jimenez lose weight, but the class offers additional resources.

“She needs to see this,” Rodriguez said. “She likes this and she can see that she can eat healthy. I also want to know more about things I can cook.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)