How Bristol Flyers are hitting the heights in Bristol schools with their healthy eating initiative
Neil Maggs finds out about the 'Health Squad' and how they are engaging with young people
SportIt was a cold, windy, blustery day, and I was not sure I really wanted go to school. I didn’t like school. In my packed lunch I had a sausage roll, a bag of crisps, and an apple.
I had been sent to Barley Close Primary to cover a basketball thing called ‘Health Squad.’ The title made me nervous already. A Project led by Bristol Flyers Community department, which coached kids basketball alongside tips for a healthy lifestyle.
Apparently they utilised professional players from the Bristol Flyers squad - our local professional team that play in the BBL (British Basketball League) - to engage young people.
No doubt, just turning up to a community session to put their face to something, on strict instructions from the PR team. Probably, not really wanting to be there, just duty bound. A photo opportunity, a chance to make themselves look good.
Yes I was in a grumpy mood. As I said it was cold, and I really don’t like school.
However, I have been known, on rare occasion, to concede when I’m wrong. And today of all days I could not have been more wrong.
The ‘Health Squad’ project is a 6 week programme that is currently delivered across 30 primary schools in Bristol and the surrounding area. Jenny Lewis, Community Development Officer, who is leading on this, tells me the aim is ‘to empower youngsters with knowledge and understanding of how to live a healthy lifestyle. Basketball is the vehicle through which we do that.’
The session here at Barley Close Primary lasts two hours, and has two classes, one from Year 5 and the other Year 6. Both groups get an hour of basketball outside in the playground, and an hour healthy workshop in the classroom. I went inside, it was warmer. Here it was Jenny herself that delivered this. There were lots of props, slides, and lively conversations.
When at school I would always get itchy feet in the classroom, needing to stretch my legs, switching off, chatting, being easily bored. Kids are kids and I expected the same here. I sat next to Kelvin, aged 9, a friendly lad with a cheeky smile. I whispered ‘this must be a bit boring!?”, He looked at me, ’No’ he said, ‘It’s good. I enjoy it.
I looked around everyone looked engaged. Jenny clearly knew her topic, and was able to get the kids interested. It was interactive, very different from my school days. Everyone was handed some sugar lumps and a card with certain foods. And you were supposed to place how many sugar lumps went with each food. I had an urge to grab one and throw it across the classroom, but then remembered I was ‘in my late 30s’ and here as a journalist.
We were then told the answers. It was surprising. I bet the kids won’t really take it on board, as if that’s going to make a difference I thought. Then Kelvin said, ‘No. I will think twice about chocolate now. Not eat too much. Didn’t realise how much sugar in.’ Keener.
After a frank conversation about heart disease, I spotted a rather tall man in a Flyers hoodie sat laughing and chatting to kids. He didn’t look like a teacher. Kids seemed to like him. It was Daniel Edozie, power forward, for the Bristol Flyers. The 25 year old, spoke with a strong American accent, and was taking part in a conversation on a table with a group of kids about the diet of a professional athlete.
He mentioned how not eating right will halt your progress in sport, and I swear he glanced at me when he said it, sensing my failures to make it in football. But I may have been paranoid.
Look at him pretending to be enjoying all this I thought, pretending to like kids. Mr big shot. The workshop then moved onto foods that rot your teeth, and lead to gum disease and tooth decay. This left me feeling guilty about the big slice of carrot cake I had eaten last night.
Then a slide was put up of a cartoon depiction of an obese man, someone who was living an unhealthy lifestyle. I looked at the floor, feeling uncomfortable. I begrudgingly admit to putting on a few pounds in recent years. Jenny explained about how important the ‘fuel’, of what you put in your body was, and even more so for professional athletes. Everyone looked at Daniel. She told me, ‘We don’t just talk about food, but alcohol, drugs, everything.’ The kids looked on intently, I looked at the floor again.
At this point it was time to get some fresh air. I wanted to watch some basketball so went outside. The first group in the playground were with Flyers community coach Ronan Jebb, a Scottish guy who looked about 14 foot tall, and had clearly played a bit of basketball. I bet he didn’t want to be here either.
I watched from the side, shivering, as the kids played a number of games and drills with basketballs. This was madness, surely they didn’t want to be doing this now, in this weather?
Alas all I saw was lots of laughter, smiles and fun. A mix of genders, and cultures, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves intently. Annoying.
I spoke to Ms Beard, a teacher who was supporting the session, who like all teachers refused to give me her first name. I asked what she thought of these ‘big time charlie’ basketball players like Daniel coming into her school, ‘It’s great. Brilliant for the kids. Well it’s the Flyers isn't it? Why wouldn't they love it?’
And of coach Ronan, she laughed, ’Well the fact he looks like a giant and can actually play basketball carries a bit more clout than Ms beard putting her PE kit on.’ Fair point.
She also explained that having the likes of Ronan and Daniel there was useful as most primary
school teachers were female, so having strong male role models was very much welcomed. Let alone ones that are as tall as the BFG.
It was time for the switch around now, and as much as I really wanted to go back into the warm classroom, I couldn’t face the thought of confronting my healthy lifestyle demons again. Daniel Edoze came outside with his group onto the court. So I stayed in the cold.
As the session started, with balls bouncing around, my sense was by now a professional athlete that rocks up and smiles for some photographs and signs a few autographs, would be getting bored. I expected to see chinks in his armour, something emerge behind his smile.
I was disappointed. He was still smiling, jumping around, having fun, whilst everyone hung off his every word. He told me, ’For me it’s rewarding, you see a kid trying to achieve something in the moment. Achieving success they wanted. However small. I can offer real mentoring guidance, on the court or in the classroom.’
I wondered if the kids really cared who he was and what he did and whether it made any real difference? 10 year old Ben Mead told me, ‘Yeah of course. I’ve been to the flyers a couple of times. I like it. Main thing I love is learning new skills here, most of which I didn’t know before which Daniel shows us. Like crossover, and slam dunks.’
I was getting colder, and grumpier, and this article was not going to go how I intended it. Hopefully Annabelle would tell me it didn’t matter who they were, ‘They are great. I love how they are so tall. Everyone feels really small compared to them, even Ms Harris who is actually really tall.’ Ms Harris was assisting with the group, I went and stood next to her to verify this. She was tall. But not as tall as Daniel and Ronan.
Putting my petty jealousy of their stature and physique to one side, what is clear, is that there is an obesity epidemic in this country. In Bristol there are stark health inequalities depending on which part of the city you live.
So everything that Jenny and her team are teaching is vital, but an important question remains, how do you educate families and parents, the ones who will ultimately be making the decisions on what ‘fuel’ these young people take on board? Jenny responds, ‘It isn’t easy, but the school has a close relationship with parents and guardians, and have regular contact. We supply every pupil with a booklet with all relevant information and health tips in to take home, and we encourage them to share this with all the family. Work through it together.’
Despite this, the inner cynic re-emerged, and I reckon some of these athletes talk a good game, in front of the kids, and maybe even their coaches at Flyers, but probably sneak off and have a burger or hot dog when no one is around. I know I do. Well that’s actually a lie as am quite open about it now. There is an honesty in my unhealthy eating.
So I hint to Daniel, ‘come on you must snack on unhealthy foods and all that,’ he looks me in the eye, and tells me straight ‘I try to always eat healthy, I am infact vegan.’ Oh for gods sake.
The session continued. Daniel, may not be a footballer, but he is a professional athlete, who is probably shrouded from reality, living a life different to us lesser mortals. So if a young person had an issue or a problem, how could he and his teammates that are used on these projects, possibly relate? Or even help? There was no coming back from that. I had him nailed.
I approach this with Daniel. He opens up about his journey. Born in London, he moved to the US aged ten.
He came from a chaotic family life, lots of issues, which eventually led to being homeless, living on the streets. He tells me, ‘Because of all this my experience puts me in a natural position to provide genuine wisdom. I have been through these things. Me making a difference, helping on the Hoops 4 Health project, in everything it does, aligns with my purpose. I can help young people.’ Damn.
The final whistle went. The session ended. I was proved wrong on every level.