Get ’Em While They’re Cubs

Boy Scout troops strive for healthier habits—and a new badge

Boys in matching kerchiefs and caps cluster around a snack table. Their uniforms might be reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting, but this is not your father’s Cub Scout meeting. Instead of eating cookies and drinking bug juice, these first-graders are sampling kiwi and star fruit with all the intensity of grown-ups at a wine tasting.

The fruit and vegetable taste test is just one of the activities the boys might try as they work to earn the SCOUTStrong Healthy Unit patch. Developed in partnership with Healthy Kids Out of School (HKOS), an initiative of ChildObesity180 at the Friedman School, the award is designed to help Boy Scout troops make simple changes to their snacking and activity routines and establish a new “healthy meeting” norm.

Over the course of at least nine meetings, the scouts practice healthy habits, such as drinking water instead of sugary beverages, choosing nutritious snacks and increasing physical activity. Alyssa Koomas, project manager for HKOS, said that trying out new activities in the company of peers can help reinforce the behaviors, which means that scouts are more likely to bring some of the new habits home with them.

The Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation sponsored a three-year study with Boy Scouts in New England that resulted in the patch program, as well as updates to Cub Scout Leader Guides that incorporate the new healthy meeting principles. A corollary Strong Girls patch for Girl Scout troops debuted in 2015.

More than 40,000 Boy and Girl Scouts have completed the patch programs. With more than 4 million children participating in scouting in the United States each year, the patch program could go a long way toward helping ChildObesity180 accomplish its mission to reverse the trend of the childhood obesity epidemic within one generation.

Sandy Smith, a scout leader in Bangor, Maine, piloted the Healthy Unit patch program with his grandson’s troop, working with parents to revamp the weekly meeting. Sodas and juice boxes were banned. Instead of candy, the boys now bring apples, carrots and fresh-popped popcorn to share at snack time. But by far the most popular change was stretching the meeting time from 60 to 75 minutes to allow for physical activity.

“The kids started to ask when it would be time to head outside and run around,” said Smith. Scouts who initially struggled to put away electronic screens during meeting time became enthusiastic participants and even signed up to attend scout camp during the summer.

Koomas hopes the success of the scouting patch programs will translate to other volunteer-led initiatives. To that end, HKOS has created a number of other healthy habits programs, including a training to help youth sports coaches educate athletes about the best ways to refuel on and off the field. Eventually, kids could hear the same healthy choice message at all their out-of-school activities, so when they run from a scout meeting to soccer practice, they skip the sugary sports drinks and bring their water bottles instead.

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