Every day, more than 750 elementary school students in Norwalk, Conn., arrive at school early for 45 minutes of jumping jacks, lunges, sprinting in the halls and other exercises and physical activity. It’s called “Breakfast Boot Camp,” and it’s followed by a healthy breakfast before the students – from the second, third and fourth grades – go to class. 

The boot camp is part of Project L.E.A.N (Learning, with Energy from Activity and Nutrition), a partnership of Norwalk Hospital, Pepperidge Farm and the Norwalk public schools and health department. The five-year-old initiative is designed to curb childhood obesity and improve students’ overall health by teaching them at an early age the lifelong habits of eating well and exercising often.     

“It helps kids come to school ready to learn,” says John Reynolds, principal at Jefferson Science Magnet School, which served as the pilot program for Project L.E.A.N. “Teachers confirm that kids who attend the boot camp are doing better.”

Community Connections

A registered dietician from Norwalk Hospital teaches in-school nutrition classes. Monthly parent engagement events, including cooking demonstrations, ensure parent involvement in the program, which has been extended to five elementary schools.

Project L.E.A.N began when Campbell Soup, the parent company of Pepperidge Farm, several years ago committed itself to reducing childhood obesity. In Norwalk, childhood obesity rates are about 40%, well above the national average rate of 30%.

Ruth Ann Walsh, Pepperidge Farm’s director of corporate citizenship, met with representatives of Norwalk Hospital and others in the community to design and implement the program. The hospital developed the outline for the Project L.E.A.N curriculum; the schools supplied the teachers for boot camp; and Pepperidge Farm contributed funding and what Walsh calls “strategic business thinking” about the program.

“This is a commitment of a group of diverse community stakeholders working on a common agenda for solving a specific social problem,” Walsh says. “We all bring a unique skill set that makes the program very coherent and very comprehensive.”

To evaluate the program’s success, the health department collects data at the beginning and end of the school year, including body mass index (BMI). Students complete pre- and post-questionnaires designed to measure their knowledge, attitudes and behavior toward healthy eating and physical activity. Results show the program has a positive impact on the students’ awareness of the importance of healthy eating and exercise, with most students registering in a healthy BMI range.

“The kids understand that they are in charge of what goes on with their bodies,” says Amanda Dornburgh, Norwalk Hospital’s lead dietician. “They understand, as early as the second grade, the health risks associated with having an unhealthy weight. It’s great to see kids so excited about healthy eating.”

Jefferson Science Magnet School’s Reynolds says Project L.E.A.N is “part of the culture” in the school. “Whether it be good weather and warm or freezing cold, the kids make their way into the gym in the morning,” he says. “They do boot camp and different activities, eat a healthy breakfast, and I think the biggest implication is they are going off to the classroom awake, engaged and ready to learn.”