Making an impact

. October 16, 2012.
kerri_award

You probably don’t know Kerri Knippen, but there’s a good chance she could be influencing your child’s health. . . positively.

A registered dietitian, Knippen has volunteered her time meeting monthly with a “food task force” made up of Findlay City Schools’ administrators and food service staff. The group focuses on developing healthier school menus. Their short-term goal is a pilot program set for the last nine weeks of this school year at Washington Intermediate School. “To make it fun and interesting for the students, we’ve categorized foods into ‘go,’ ‘slow’ and ‘whoa,’” says Knippen.  “Foods will be labeled green, yellow or red with a reward system for choosing more green and yellow labeled foods.”

Kerri feels a lot of schools operate under the misconception that kids will only eat pizza, burgers and fries. They often misjudge what a child is willing to try, especially when there’s an incentive to make healthy choices. “Schools can still include foods like cheeseburgers a few times a month,” she advises, “but we’ll offer alternatives. We’re coming up with low-cost second entrée choices that will most likely be a bagged item like a turkey sandwich. It’ll be great to be able to give Washington students a healthy entrée choice.”

Seeing the effects of obesity

Recognized as Young Dietitian of the Year, Ohio 2010, Knippen earned a B.S. in Dietetics from Bowling Green State University, and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from the Northwest Ohio Consortium of Public Health, Toledo. She is an outpatient dietitian and diabetes educator at Blanchard Valley Medical Associates in Findlay, and a supervising dietitian for The Right Weigh, a division of Northwest Physical Therapy in Ottawa, Ohio. 

Seeing children and adolescent patients as well as adults has fueled Kerri’s passion for educating our kids about healthy choices. Over the past few years, she’s seen an increase in child/adolescent obesity, a higher prevalence of children with insulin resistance and demonstrated pre-diabetes, and high blood pressure. She refers to one 18-year-old patient who is already taking medication for hypertension. “I’m seeing health problems especially in young females,” she adds. “There are a lot of young women experiencing abnormal weight gain, irregular periods, and even darkening of the skin (a result of insulin resistance).  All of these symptoms are due to unhealthy lifestyles.”

Government support 

Knippen is encouraged by changes the federal government has mandated in school menus.  Right now, the “feds” are focusing on sodium content, lowering the amount of sodium in an average meal by approximately two-thirds. She admits, though, that these changes may take a while. “Yes, public schools must choose from a list of government commodities in order to keep costs in line. Sometimes those commodities aren’t the healthiest choices, but we need to do what we can. For instance, we can pair a commodity like pizza with a healthy side dish.  Many of us are also putting some pressure on the government to revise the school commodities offerings.”

Ohio is also focusing on healthier students, and passed the Healthy Choices Act in 2010.  Among other things, the Act provides funding for a pilot program where K-8 schools can offer 60 minutes of physical activity per day. There is also a nutrition pilot through the Ohio Department of Education that will be launched this spring. This will award 20 schools with up to $11,500 to work with registered dietitians.

Can we really make a difference?

Findlay City Schools, like others in northwest Ohio, have experienced a significant increase in students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches. Many students also have breakfast at school, making two meals a day that are not eaten at home. According to Kerri, schools can definitely have an influence on the food choices that kids learn to make.

“We can’t change what kids eat at home, or what parents buy at the store, but if kids can be introduced to a new food at school, they may ask for it at home. Yes, five or ten years down the road, we could see a significant change.”

Since food supplies are purchased almost a year in advance, Knippen says that a complete menu overhaul won’t occur in Findlay City Schools until the 2012-2013 school year. In the meantime, she’ll continue to analyze current menus and recommend cost-efficient ways to cut down on sugar, salt and fats in breakfast and lunchtime fare. Although in the early stages of her career, Knippen feels she’s definitely on the right path.

“My job lets me work with people, improve health care outcomes, and teach my patients how to live healthier lifestyles. Dietetics is one way to focus on nutrition, exercise and behavior change. I find all of those very interesting.”

Kerri Knippen, R.D., L.D., can be reachedthrough The Right Weigh at 419-890-5819 or via e-mail at TheRightWeigh@NorthwestPhysicalTherapy.com