Apps for Healthy Kids

August 05, 2010

These days, there’s a food application for just about everything.

These days, there’s a food application for just about everything. There are apps to help with grocery lists and those that rate restaurants, apps that count calories, and apps that provide food safety news. There are even apps to help consumers pair wine with their meal. Now, the First Lady and the USDA are challenging people of all ages to create apps that drive children and teens to eat better and be more physically active.

The Apps for Healthy Kids competition is part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. The competition calls on software developers, game designers, students, and other innovators to develop fun and engaging interactive tools and games that help communicate healthy lifestyle choices.

One contender, How Wheat Works, tackles this assignment by teaching consumers about where their food comes from. The program is an educational online multimedia program that delivers a farm-to-fork education on wheat. Users get a better understanding of wheat’s nutritional value as they virtually grow, harvest and mill their own kernels of wheat to create their desired wheat food, like bread, pasta or a bagel. Users can also extend their learning experience through preparing wheat-based recipes, viewing videos from “America’s Heartland,” and exploring wheat grown in their area.

Another app in the running is the Healthy Harvest Maze Game, developed by nurses and dieticians passionate about fighting childhood obesity through nutrition education. This game teaches children about the importance of fruits and vegetables by picking their way through a field, orchard and garden maze. Children get points for picking healthy foods, while learning about the healthy benefits and nutrients of each food they have harvested.

Yet another app, and one of the most popular entries in the competition, is What Food Am I? This game helps children assess foods they ate yesterday so that they can learn about their eating habits and make better choices today. As children pile their plates with their food choices, animations show them when they reach (or exceed) recommended values. Then, recipes are suggested to fill in gaps in nutrition. For example, if low in dairy, the suggested recipe is a yogurt parfait.

Dr. Robert C. Post, Deputy Director of USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), says that one of the major priorities for this administration is fighting childhood obesity, and that there are a plethora of programs aimed at that. One idea is to look at the ways to get nutrition messages out to consumers in neat and novel ways, and The Apps for Healthy Kids competition does just that. 

“We know that interactive web-based content provides convenient information that can inspire changes in health behavior. Web-based interventions are particularly well suited for today’s kids, and especially students. This is certainly the backdrop for looking at social media and technology to further the communication of nutrition messages, improve awareness and intentions, and ultimately induce behavioral change in both diet and physical activity in children,” says Post.

The guideline for the Let's Move! initiative required that tools and games be built using the USDA nutrition dataset, which provides information on total calories, calories from "extras" (solid fats and added sugars), and MyPyramid food groups for over 1,000 commonly eaten foods. Given five categories under which to enter – Calorie Content, Menu Planner, MyPyramid, Nutrition Facts, and Physical Activity – 91 apps made the grade. How Wheat WorksHealthy Harvest Maze Game, and What Food Am I? are three apps in the running that can help keep consumers focused on the right choices for food and daily activities. Other apps can be viewed on The Apps for Healthy Kids website. Winners will be announced in September.

Childhood obesity or excess weight threatens the healthy future of one third of American children. With obesity rates tripling over the past 30 years – a trend that means, for the first time in history, American children may face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents – the time is now, says Post, to take action. 

Post adds, “We’ve reached critical mass, the point where we need to do something as the responsible public health community, in partnership with the private sector and organizations, to get information to consumers and help them build healthy eating patterns. Young people today have access to data and the Internet on a grand scale. What a tremendous opportunity we have to reach a broad audience of young people that are fully engaged, and we are speaking to them where we can really get their attention and drive change.”

Vote for your favorite apps at