$20-million gift supports healthy living habits in Alberta schools

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta is expanding a program aimed at reversing poor health trends among Alberta children, thanks to a $20 million gift from a U of A alumnus.

By September 2011, the Alberta Project Promoting active Living & healthy Eating in Schools (APPLE Schools) will run in 41 Alberta schools. This includes urban, rural, and First Nations, Metis and Inuit schools.

Since 2008, APPLE Schools has been operating in 10 Edmonton-area schools to create environments that support lifelong health and learning. Under the direction of Paul Veugelers, a professor in the School of Public Health whose research on health-promoting school programs has received international attention, the program has been instrumental in creating healthy school communities in Alberta.

Research conducted by Veugelers in 2008 showed that only 27 per cent of Grade 5 students in Alberta meet the recommendations for vegetable and fruit intake, whereas 67 per cent eat junk food twice a week. The study also revealed that 29 per cent of the students were overweight or obese.

After only two years, APPLE Schools has shown improved nutritional habits, increased physical activity levels and a reduction in obesity levels among children in participating schools. It is these positive results that persuaded U of A alumnus Allan P. Markin, to offer an additional $15 million donation to the program, following his initial $5 million gift in 2008.

“I just want to thank the University of Alberta for making this program happen,” says Markin, an Alberta businessman and philanthropist. “The APPLE Schools team knows how to create healthy communities. Now we know for sure that, if we make it fun and easy for kids, they can develop healthy habits for life.”

“The aim of APPLE Schools is to develop healthy lifestyles and, ultimately, reduce chronic disease,” says Veugelers, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Population Health. He explains that overweight children are at greater risk for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.

“Our research has also shown that children who eat healthy foods and who are physically active are more likely to perform better in school,” adds Veugelers, highlighting the broader impact of the program.

“The School of Public Health at the U of A is committed to promoting the health of people by leading the way with innovative community-oriented research, like APPLE Schools, that makes a tangible difference,” said dean of the school Sylvie Stachenko.

“We are very grateful to Allan Markin for his vision and generosity,” says Indira Samarasekera, president and vice-chancellor of the university. “A lot can be accomplished when certain conditions are in place: talented researchers doing credible, action-based studies, professional health facilitators with the skills to create healthier environments, enthusiastic schools eager to change their students’ lives for the better—and a donor willing to provide the major resources needed to make it all happen.”

So, what do APPLE Schools look like and why is the program successful?

Each participating school has a dedicated health facilitator who collaborates with parents, students, school staff and the surrounding community. Together, they create environments that support lifelong health and learning. This may include fun activities such as planting classroom gardens or scheduling family fun nights in the school gymnasium.

Annually, researchers measure change in knowledge, attitude and behaviour of the children. Results are shared with the schools, so that the information may be used to modify action plans in order to improve the health of children.”

“In the APPLE Schools environment,” says Veugelers. “The healthy choice is the easy choice for children.”

APPLE Schools collaborates with the following school communities:
• Alexander First Nation  Education Authority
• Aspen View Regional School Division 
• Edmonton Catholic Schools
• Edmonton Public Schools
• Elk Island Catholic Schools
• Elk Island Public Schools
• Fort McMurray Catholic Schools
• Fort McMurray Public Schools
• Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School
• Northland School Division #61