Fifth-grader Mikaela Degrande used to think General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios was a relatively healthy choice for breakfast until she discovered a serving of the cereal has nine times more sugar than plain Cheerios.

Fifth-grader Mikaela Degrande used to think General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios was a relatively healthy choice for breakfast until she discovered a serving of the cereal has nine times more sugar than plain Cheerios.

Mikaela said she never thought about sugar content in her breakfast cereal until she began participating this fall in Be A Fit Kid, a free after-school program at Medford's Griffin Creek Elementary School.

Be A Fit Kid, a program of the Medford-based Healthy Kids Now nonprofit organization, provides students with after-school fitness activities and nutritional lessons in the form of noncompetitive games for about two hours twice a week at Griffin Creek and Jacksonville elementary schools.

Published studies from July 2008 by the program's founder, Jenny Slawta, in Health Promotion Practice show that program participants generally improve their body-fat composition, fitness, nutritional knowledge and dietary habits and reduce their cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Slawta, a Southern Oregon University associate professor of health, developed the program in 2002 in response to the national childhood obesity epidemic and local reductions in nutrition and physical fitness education at schools because of state budget cuts.

The number of obese children in the United States has nearly quadrupled in the past 30 years, driving up the rate of type 2 diabetes and heart disease in adolescents and young adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.

About 45 students attend the after-school program at Griffin Creek from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Slawta and SOU health and physical education students staff the program.

Last Wednesday, students ran on the track and jumped on benches, an activity meant to promote bone growth, played tunnel tag and did an obstacle course.

"We vary it so there is something new each time," said SOU senior Carolina Campbell.

"I like it," said fifth-grader Leiah Calice. "You get to play all these cool games and run on the track."

After the physical exercise, students go indoors to learn about nutrition. Slawta brought them a worksheet showing how many grams of sugar are in common breakfast cereals. One of the highest was Raisin Bran. However, Slawta cautioned, that's because of natural sugar content from raisins, which is not the kind of sugar consumers should be wary of. What children and their parents should limit is cereals that are high in processed sugar.

"You shouldn't eat that much sugar," Mikaela said, demonstrating some of her nutritional knowledge from the program. "You should only eat a little each day."

Students at Griffin Creek receive at least one 40-minute period of physical education per week, but teachers have the discretion to hold PE classes up to 40 minutes a day five times a week, said Principal Ginny Hicks.

Slawta recommends that children have at least 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day for optimal health. Adults should have at least 60 minutes of moderate exercise per day, defined as the exertion required for brisk walking, she said.

Slawta's curriculum also provides detailed nutritional information, including the benefits of certain kinds of food, and emphasizes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and whole grains and low in saturated fat and sugar.

"It's better to eat fresh or frozen fruit than canned," said fifth-grader Taylor Stevens. Canned fruit loses nutrients during the heating process and often is stored in syrup, which escalates the sugar content.

"I find kids are extremely receptive to the nutritional component and very receptive to trying new foods," Slawta said.

In the past, she has brought foods such hummus, millet oat bran cereal and vegetable pizza with minimal cheese for children in the program to try, and the majority of them try the foods without much ado and enjoy the taste.

"You have to get out of the mind-set that a child's palate is different," Slawta said. "Some parents are more worried about their children eating than what they are eating. Children need to be accustomed to eating healthy when they're young."

She encourages kids to try a food several times before deciding they dislike it.

"It takes kids at least six times to start liking something," Slawta said.

Be A Fit Kid also supplies nutritional curriculum to teachers at nine schools in Jackson County for use during classes, including Medford's Oak Grove, Jackson, Kennedy, Wilson, Howard and Washington elementary schools, Central Point's Scenic Middle School, Phoenix Elementary School and Children of the Kingdom, a Waldorf preschool at Bigham Knoll in Jacksonville.

Student nurses from Oregon Health & Science University at the SOU campus teach the curriculum mostly during the school day, said Joan Smith, the students' OHSU clinical instructor.

Schools that offer federally funded free and reduced lunch programs, which include most public schools, are required to have a wellness policy on file. Teachers often don't have time to complete the nutritional instruction that goes along with that, so OHSU students are able to fill that gap, Smith said.

"My students and the elementary children are having a blast," Smith said.

On the Web: www.healthykidsnow.us.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.