New Jersey has been awarded a grant from the National 4-H Council to develop, strengthen and implement healthy living programming at the community level. The idea is to help put young people in the driver's seat when it comes to health issues.

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Twenty states are receiving the grant, and each will receive up to $65,000 to further the 4-H Youth Voice: Youth Choice program. The program helps children tackle wellness issues including nutrition, physical fitness and safety.

"There are health issues in New Jersey - there are teens who are prepared and ready to be leaders, and there is a significant number of underserved and minority populations in the Garden State," said Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of the National 4-H Council.

The program allows 4-H members to work alongside land-grant university experts and 4-H volunteers to mobilize other youngsters and get them excited about living healthy lives. Through the programs, youth not only improve their physical health and the health of those in their communities, but their work in the 4-H system improves their self-esteem and leadership skills as well.

"Eight-five percent of the kids who have participated in the program have made at least one nutritional behavior change, so they have either started to eat more vegetables, cook more at home, drink more water or exercise more," Sirangelo said.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents since 1980 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In black and Hispanic communities, more than 41 percent of children ages six and seven is overweight or obese according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As a result of the program, 79 percent of youth reported that they now prefer to eat fruit as a snack, 85 percent of youth reported that they learned what nutritious foods they should eat daily and 86 percent of youth reported that they now eat more fruits and vegetables.

"This program is locally driven, so the young people in more than 10 counties and many communities in New Jersey will have the opportunity to make their own choices about what would be important, whether it be developing community action plans, nutrition education, starting 4-H clubs that would address nutrition issues or holding health fairs. They can build a sidewalk, start a community food garden or do a nutrition education publicity event," Sirangelo said.