Linnea Kooistra
Linnea Kooistra
CHICAGO — Leaders involved in providing children with nutritious food and increasing physical activity gathered at a town hall meeting to discuss ways to form coalitions to make improvements that benefit kids.

“Our focus is on how we can continue to put students at the center of the conversation and how we can bring thought leaders from very diverse groups, including education, government, nutrition, private sector and public sector, to work as a coalition,” said Alexis Glick, CEO of the GENYOUth Foundation.

The foundation is a public-private partnership with the National Dairy Council and the National Football League. It was formed three years ago with a six-way memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education and Health and Human Services.

“The foundation was formed with the sole intent to focus on how we could empower our program Fuel Up to Play 60 and how we could provide more resources to kids,” the CEO explained.

“This is the first in our town hall series,” said Glick at the GENYOUth Learning Connection Chicago Town Hall meeting, which was sponsored by the GENYOUth Foundation, the Midwest Dairy Council and the Quaker Oats Co.

“Every day, we’re in 73,000 schools, reaching 38 million kids with the Fuel Up to Play 60 program, and the lessons our kids are learning each day are invaluable,” she said. “But if they don’t have adult stakeholders to support them inside and outside of the school building, our work won’t service back into the communities.”

In a couple of years, the National Dairy Council will be celebrating its 100 th anniversary.

“That captures how committed dairy farmers have been to being a part of the solution for child health and wellness,” said Mike Kruger, CEO of the Midwest Dairy Council. “We are really proud of that commitment.”

This commitment is important, he noted, because kids are 100 percent of the future dairy consumers.

“They’re our future families, workforce and community leaders,” he said. “If we don’t have vitality in our children, it impacts our future.”

The Quaker Oats Co. was founded 136 years ago in Chicago. Quaker Oats got involved with the Fuel Up to Play 60 program two years ago because of the importance of education, nutritious foods and physical activity, explained Jose Luis Prado, president of the company.

“This is about doing good business by doing good for the community by investing in the health of the people,” he said.

“Change doesn’t happen at the national level — change happens at the local level,” Glick stressed. “That’s why we’re here today. We want everyone to walk out with actionable items.”

During a panel discussion, Stephanie Whyte said she has been the chief health officer for the Chicago Public Schools for the past 18 months.

“I am the first ever in this capacity,” she noted. “My role is a collaboration between public health and public education.”

Whyte noted that her focus is to remove health-related barriers to learning.

“You can’t educate a child that’s not healthy, and you can’t keep a child healthy that’s not educated,” she said.

“For 30 years, until last year, students did not have recess,” she added. “Last year, we were able to reinstate recess and increase physical activity for our students. However, our students still lack daily physical education.”

Linnea Kooistra, a dairy farmer from Woodstock, stressed the importance of child health and wellness.

“Part of what gets us up in the morning is our passion for the product we produce and the wellness it brings to kids,” she said.

“Midwest dairy farmers are providing $500,000 to Chicago Public Schools, and most of that goes to access to breakfast,” she noted. “We understand the need for breakfast that provides the nutrition that helps kids so they can learn. We know better nutrition leads to better performance in schools.”

“About 860,000 people in Cook County every day wake up uncertain where and how they will get the food they need to eat,” reported Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“In the Chicago Public Schools, 80 percent of the children qualify for free and reduced price lunch, which means they are from families that don’t have enough income to always provide healthy food that children need to be able to grow up to reach their full potential,” she said.

This is why it is critical that investments are made in programs and opportunities that connect children to healthy food, Maehr stressed.

“There’s really clear data that children who do not have access to healthy, nutritious food will not do as well in school and they will not realize their full potential,” she reported. “And the implications are far greater than our school system, the implications are community wide.”

Anthony Morgan, former wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, has served as a spokesman for the Fuel Up to Play 60 program for the past three years.

“We need to empower the next generation to believe in themselves that they can be healthy and active,” he said. “I got involved with this program because I want to make a difference in the next generation of leaders.”

It is important for adults to be role models, said Bonnie Johnson, a registered dietician with the Quaker Oats Co.

“It’s not nutrition until they eat it — food in the trash doesn’t do anybody any good,” she said. “A quality breakfast is something kids will eat.”