The award-winning Students as Lifestyle Activists (SALSA) program is set to scale up its reach by working more strategically with the Department of Education.
WSLHD Board chair Richard Alcock met with Associate Professor Smita Shah, the director of the WSLHD Primary Health Care Education and Research Unit (PERU) and her team earlier this month to discuss the program, which now operates in 23 schools across Sydney’s west. PERU is the driving force behind SALSA, and has developed ongoing partnerships with universities, GPs and high schools to deliver it.
SALSA aims at increasing fruit, vegetable and water consumption, and daily physical activity, in high schools students. Its innovative approach sees university students trained as SALSA educators, who then educate Year 10 peer leaders about the importance of good food and lifestyle choices.
The Year 10 peer leaders then educate Year 8 students, who in turn develop both personal goals and an action plan for their school.
The strength of the SALSA program is in the peer-led education model, which engages, empowers and excites high school students.
Director of the WSLHD Research and Education Network Professor and long-time supporter of SALSA Professor Stephen Leeder said the success of the program lay in its ability to engage students.
“It isn’t about talking at students; it’s about allowing them to actively manage their choices and their lifestyle,” he said.
“They are the ones driving it.
“Because they are invested, they spread the message to family and friends. It’s a very powerful combination.”
WSLHD chief executive Danny O’Connor has seen the program at work first hand.
“I’ve really enjoyed the sessions that I have participated in with these young students,” he said.
“Young people leading and supporting others to learn about healthy lifestyle and behaviours to support such a lifestyle is great to watch in action.
“I was also fascinated to hear how much of what is learned at school through the SALSA program goes home and influences conversation with parents and other family members, and also influences food choices and activity choices made by the family.”
Mr Alcock described SALSA as “an engaging and important program”, and a vital tool in the battle against obesity, diabetes and poor diet in Australia.
“If we can get young people thinking about their lifestyles before bad habits have become ingrained, we’re on the right path,” he said.
Now in its 13th year, statistics show SALSA students eat more fruit and vegetables, drink fewer soft drinks and are more likely to eat breakfast.
PERU is a critical link between health and education, and is driving the connection with the SALSA program.
SALSA won an AMA excellence in Health Care Award in 2015, and three WSLHD Quality Awards in 2014.