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Puppet shows help promote nutrition

Kathleen Megan | 2/18/2009, 4:18 a.m.

HARTFORD, Conn. — The 4-year-olds’ eyes are glued on a spiky-haired puppet in a jeans jumpsuit whose name is Tommy.

Tommy, who watches too much television, is cajoled into going to a basketball practice. When he gets thirsty at practice, he asks, “Is there a soda machine around here?”

“Ahhh, nooo,” says a voice that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Turns out it’s a talking water bottle puppet by the name of Ms. Water who has come to warn Tommy about soda.

“Soda makes you thirstier, and it has a lot of sugar that’s not good for you,” Ms. Water tells Tommy.

Minutes later, Maria Arroyo, the puppeteer, appears from behind the mini-puppet theater and quizzes her rapt audience in Marilyn Viera’s pre-kindergarten class at Burr Elementary School in Hartford.

“How many glasses of water should you drink a day?” Arroyo asks.

“Six to eight,” comes the answer.

“This boy wants to lie around … What’s he need to do?” she asks.

“Exercise.”

“Should he eat candy a lot?”

“No, fruits and vegetables.”

For more than a decade, the Hispanic Health Council, in partnership with the University of Connecticut, has been educating Hartford’s young students with an entertaining series of six puppet shows that carry serious messages about nutrition, obesity, exercise, food safety, diabetes and heart disease. Grace Damio, director of the Center for Community Nutrition at the Hispanic Health Council, said it does about 400 puppet shows every year.

And while you might wonder how much a 4-year-old or even an 8-year-old might retain, it’s clear at this recent performance that these puppets reach kids.

“I see it every year,” said Ginnene Branch, a kindergarten teacher at Kennelly School in Hartford. Before the first couple of puppet shows, many of the children are not interested in the healthful snacks fruits and vegetables that she often brings to school for them.

“I don’t care how much we tell kids, ‘Vegetables are good for you; eat something from each of the food groups.’ Kids will say, ‘I don’t like vegetables.’ Some of the kids wouldn’t even eat fruit,” said Branch.

But after a couple of puppet-show discussions on nutrition and health, she said, “It’s like night and day.” She’ll ask, “Who wants fruit? Everyone wants fruit. Who wants vegetables? Everyone does.”

The show is part of a multifaceted effort with additional programs and materials that reach parents and teenagers as well as small children designed to address the nutritional and health needs for the Latino community.

A recent study found that 41 percent of a sample of children ages 6 to 11 in the Hartford school system are either obese or at risk of obesity, compared with a national average for that age group of 33.3 percent, according to Dr. Lee Pachter, a pediatric researcher at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

In Connecticut, 64.6 percent of Latino adults are obese or overweight, compared with 64.5 percent of blacks, and 58.9 percent of whites, according to statistics provided by the Hispanic Health Council.