ST. PETERSBURG — As a teacher, advocate and parent, Julie Ryczek has spent a quarter-century on the front lines in the war against childhood obesity.
Ryczek, who teaches fifth grade at Bay Point Elementary School in St. Petersburg, recently was lauded by Gov. Charlie Crist as the Point of Light for Fitness/Nutrition Awareness Month, recognizing her tireless efforts to promote wellness.
She serves on the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness, and her students have participated in the Governor's Fitness Challenge and other programs designed to promote a healthy lifestyle. She is also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. She is a longtime volunteer with the Kiwanis Club, Pinellas On the Move, Children's Dream Fund, Healthy Kids Day, Save the Kids Coalition and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Ryczek, 46, practices what she preaches. She has been a cheerleader, a gymnast and an aerobics teacher, and these days she runs competitively and organizes races.
"People might not remember my name, but they remember my passion," Ryczek said. "I love it when former students come back and say, 'You always wanted us to be healthy and heart smart.' "
Why are you so concerned about childhood obesity?
I've been an educator for 25 years, and I've watched the rate of obesity steadily rise. More than 9 million children in this country are obese — triple the number in 1989. It's going to be a catastrophe for our health care system because obesity can increase the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, lots of different health conditions.
What do you do to make children aware of how they eat?
We talk about the food pyramid, and how to read nutritional labels. And I always tell the kids, "Have a great day — go out and play.'' It's silly, but they remember it.
Give an example of something that has helped to make students more aware of healthy lifestyle choices.
Today we started Fresh Fruit Friday at my school. We sold apples and bananas before and after school, and we sold out. The students were engaged in it. I want to help them to make better food choices by providing snacks that are healthy and heart smart.
Why are children today more prone to obesity?
Their portions are too large, but another problem is the food choices children make. That's why we need to educate families and children on how to make better choices.
Do you think fast food restaurants contribute to the obesity epidemic?
I'm a parent myself, so I know about the convenience of fast food, and I know that has hurt us. But the fast food companies have changed. They have healthy foods on their menu now.
They put nutritional labels in their restaurants. Some fast food restaurants have playgrounds, so physical activity is incorporated.
Which works better at getting children to change their habits — awareness or fear?
Definitely education and awareness. We start young — I want to start in preschools — because if we educate the children, they'll educate their parents.
Do you ever have moments when you feel you're really making a difference?
Every day. At a supermarket I ask, why not have apples, bananas and grapes at the checkout counter instead of candy?
When I go into convenience stores I always ask, "Do you have any fresh fruit?" But we all need to work together for change. We can make it happen. Twenty-five years ago there was an ashtray everywhere you looked. Now there are no ashtrays.
That was a societal change, and we can do the same thing with food choices. People say children won't eat health food, but they will if we just promote health and nutrition.