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Solving the Mystery of Healthful Eating
By Lindsey Getz

A supermarket program engages kids in interactive learning about nutrition.

The childhood obesity epidemic has reached unprecedented numbers in the last 30 years. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in that timeframe. While various campaigns are aiming to tackle the problem—including First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign—experts say that more needs to be done to quell this nationwide problem.

The concerns over rising childhood obesity rates are why Weis Markets, a chain of supermarkets headquartered in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, with stores in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and West Virginia, launched its Mystery Tours field trip program. The Weis Mystery Tours program engages second-, third-, and fourth-grade students to learn more about the food they eat in keeping with the USDA's dietary guidelines for Americans.

"We specifically targeted second-, third-, and fourth-graders for this program because of the fact it's such an impressionable age group," says Kathryn Long, RDN, LDN, healthy living coordinator with Weis Markets who's involved with the program. "Instilling the desire to make healthful choices at a young age is something we hope they will carry into adulthood."

When students come into the store for a Mystery Tour—whether it's through a school field trip or a weekend Boy or Girl Scouts activity—they get geared up with a hat, detective's badge, and a clue pad and pencil. Then they move to stations throughout the store where they must complete an interactive challenge and solve a clue. All of the clues ultimately help them solve the mystery of why the fictitious character "N.R. Getic George" lost his energy.

"As students move throughout the store solving clues and completing challenges, customers get curious and ask what they're doing," says Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, also a healthy living coordinator with Weis Markets who's involved in the program. "We see that as another opportunity to raise awareness and talk about healthful eating with the community."

One of the kids' favorite challenges they're asked to do during the tour is to find a cereal made with whole grains. It teaches an important skill, applicable in the real world. "As they pull cereal boxes from the shelves looking for one that has a whole grain first ingredient, they're learning how to read and understand labels," Long says. "That's an important skill we hope they'll carry with them."

In the five years Weis Markets has been offering this free educational program, they've hosted 960 tours and had more than 14,000 children cruise through their aisles.

"I think those numbers say a lot about the growth of this program over the years," Long says. "We work closely with our community, and we know they see a lot of value in this program. We have groups that come back year after year."

Stark and Long both say they know that healthful eating education sometimes can be boring and uninteresting to kids. That's why they hope this unique approach to the healthful eating message will see some follow through.

"Putting the right spin on healthful eating is so important to keeping kids interested," Stark says. "We find the kids don't even realize they're learning about healthful eating strategies while participating in the mystery. As supermarket dietitians, we love the opportunity to help guide families in the community to better choices in a fun and interactive way."

Long adds that Mystery Tour participants go home with a letter that explains everything the kids did while on the tour. The dietitians see it as a chance to reach even more with their healthful eating messages.

"We hope the letter will prompt a conversation with families about healthful eating habits," Long says. "We encourage the kids to share what they've learned with their family and hopefully make a difference in their eating habits at home."

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.