KY Healthy Food Expert Anita Courtney: Helping Kids Eat Better

A young boy blows bubbles at a KY Park.

A young boy blows bubbles at a KY Park.

By Chris Egan

Anita Courtney is a Kentuckian and healthy food advocate responsible for changes, both small and large, in Kentucky’s food system.  In 2003 she started Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition (TNFC).    Their website says, TNFC “is dedicated to making healthy eating and physical activity popular and accessible to Lexington tweens in their homes, schools and communities.”   (Tweens are defined as 9-13 year olds.)

The Kentucky Project connected with Anita to ask her about Kentucky’s obesity problem, and TNFC’s work to reduce that problem among the state’s youth.

You were interested in healthy living long before the problems that we are now facing were prevalent.  What made you want to have a career as a dietitian and a leader in healthy living?

AC:  I read a magazine article about nutrition when I was 13 years old in the late 60’s.   A light was turned on for me in that moment.   I asked my mother to buy whole wheat bread, yogurt and fresh vegetables, uncommon items back then.  When she brought a green pepper home, I had no idea what to do with it, so I ate it like an apple.  The first time I tried natural peanut butter I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten.  I was a Nutra Nerd from an early age.  I went on to study nutrition at UK and asked the dean of the college to remove the junk food vending machines from the Home Ec building. I wrote her a letter saying it didn’t seem right to teach students about nutrition and then have them walk out of class to a wall of candy bars and chips.   That was by far the easiest nutrition advocacy I ever did.  One letter and the machines were gone!   Little did I know how challenging it would be to advocate for good food down the road.

Why do you think Kentucky is one of the most obese states in the nation?

AC:  Kentucky ranks 10th in the country for adult obesity and is one of 12 states with obesity rates higher than 30%.  66% of Kentucky adults are overweight or obese—that’s 2 out of 3 women and 3 out of 4 men.  And if that’s not bad enough, 16% of our 3-5 year olds are already obese.  All the usual causes apply to KY’s obesity epidemic—a plethora of unhealthy, addictive food heavily marketed by the food industry, sedentary lifestyles, and policies, environments and systems that don’t support healthy eating and active living.  Poverty and low education levels correlate with obesity and are part of what contributes to Kentucky’s high numbers.  Cultural influences and southern cuisine also play a factor. A friend of mine recently went to a potluck dinner and asked if there were any salads.  Someone directed her to the pretzel salad layered with Cool Whip and mini marshmallows.   It’s almost like a badge of honor to thumb your nose at healthy habits in some parts of Kentucky.  I also think food addiction is a big factor that doesn’t get talked about enough.

One TNFC project is Better Bites, a program that encourages healthy snacking.  The program’s slogan is, “Snack Strong.”  Can you tell us why snacking is such an important part of the diet to target?

AC:  Snacking, especially beverage consumption outside of a regular meal, continues to increase among Americans. Snacks make up more than 25 percent of our calorie intake each day.  Snacking has grown to be a full eating event, or a “fourth meal”, averaging about 580 calories daily according to research done at Purdue University.

Another one of many TNFC projects is the Good Neighbor Store.  The Good Neighbor store is a program that provides incentives to small stores for providing healthier food options to its customers.    This program addresses the problem of food deserts.  How big of a problem are food deserts in Kentucky?

AC:  There are both urban and rural areas in Kentucky that don’t have healthy food for sale for miles.  If time and gas money are factors, people will buy what’s closest.   I heard someone say recently that “food swamps” are more of a problem than “food deserts”.  I was in a meeting in Jessamine County recently and asked a Nicholasville resident if there were any restaurants that served healthy food. She said, “I don’t know of any but we have every fast food restaurant you’ve ever heard of.”

Drink Water First is yet another TNFC project. You all are busy!  This project aims to make water the primary beverage choice over the thousands of sugary drinks available.  I’ve heard of kids (and adults for that matter) that say, as ridiculous as it may sound, they don’t like water.  There are people that drink Mountain Dew or Coke for every drink of the day.  How do you change a habit like that, and for kids how do you get them to actually care about all the sugar they are putting into their body?

AC:  We started the Water First project because reducing consumption of sweetened beverages is considered one of the most promising strategies for reducing childhood obesity.  When we did focus groups people told us if we did an anti-soda campaign, people would turn us off.  So we decided to accentuate the positive with Water First: Think Your Drink.  The campaign aims to make water the default beverage by creating school policies and addressing the barriers that keep people from drinking water.  Some schools have adopted Water First polices that allow students to bring water bottles in the classroom. Some PTA’s have stopped serving sweetened beverages at school events and serve only water.  The Bluegrass Youth Sustainability Council put water bottle filling fountains in the Lexington high schools.

The Water First website ( provides a lot of practical information about how to start making drinking water a regular part of life.  We address the taste issue with tips about using filters, serving the water cold and using lemon.  There’s a drink calculator that adds up the calories, sugar and caffeine provided by your daily beverage intake.  It can be shocking.  And there’s an animated page for kids that lets them enter their drinks and see how they affect virtual characters.

Of the many TNFC projects, which has given the best results?

AC:  The work we’ve done with Lexington Parks and Recreation to bring healthier food to the public pool concession stands has changed the food landscape at these venues.  When we started in 2010 there was one healthy item on the concession menu—bottled water.  Now 60% of the menu items meet our Better Bites nutrition guidelines.  You can buy fresh veggies in a French fry boat, fresh fruit, sunflower seeds and cheese quesadillas with salsa. While they were in season last summer, the pools offered local, organic blackberries.  They even got rid of the Slushie machine.   Better Bites sales have tripled since the first year.

Are there any plans to take any of TNFC’s projects outside of Lexington to other parts of the state?

AC:  We are currently working with Davies and Jessamine counties to adopt Better Bites.  The Cabinet for Health and Health Services building in Frankfort is adding Better Bites options to their menu.  Five out of the six options on the kids’ menus of all 17 resorts in the KY State Park system meet Better Bites guidelines.  Now instead of kids automatically getting French fries with each meal, they get fresh fruit.

You have stated that you hope for a day where healthy eating is the norm and not the exception.  Do you feel that is an attainable goal in our lifetime, or do you think you are setting the foundation for generations of work before we reach that goal?

AC:  I think we will continue to make progress with each passing year. The unhealthy ways are just not sustainable for people or the planet.  The work of the local food movement is exciting and taking us back to basics.   Did you know that the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act requires that in in 2015 100% of the grains served in the School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are required to be whole grains?  Fresh fruits and vegetables are served with every school meal now.   That’s progress.  For more shining examples of success stories check out Shaping Kentucky’s Future: Local Success Stories.  I got to go across the state and interview people about the good work they are doing in promoting healthy eating and active living for this report.  It gives me hope.

What can people that are already living a healthy lifestyle do to encourage friends and family to do the same?

AC:  Healthy habits, as well as unhealthy habits, are contagious.  We tend to take on the habits of those around us.  One of the best things people can do is to role model healthy eating and active living. Out-of-town guests came to visit us years ago and the woman recently told me that she and her husband were blown away by the portion sizes my family ate.  They were half what they were used to. They went home and scaled back as result of seeing another option.    Bring delicious and healthy food to family and work place events, teach kids how to grow a garden and cook healthy food, invite co-workers and neighbors to take a walk with you.  Give the gift of health—hula-hoops, Frisbee, jump rope, a gift certificate for a yoga class, a subscription to a CSA.  Being honest, relaxed and non-defensive about why you choose these habits helps, as does a sense of humor.

Thanks to Anita Courtney for giving this interview.

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