Communities take steps to fight childhood obesity

By Kay Manning

A 2005 study led by a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago came to a startling conclusion about the effects of childhood obesity: This generation of American children may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

With 12.5 million U.S. children and adolescents considered obese, the average life span of all children could be lowered by up to five years, the study said. The fact that another 10.5 million children are considered overweight wasn’t factored into the study.

Those realities appear to have served as a clarion call on the issue. The prominent Robert Johnson Wood Foundation (RWJF) declared a goal of reversing childhood obesity by 2015 and put millions of dollars into the effort.

RWJF partnered with the YMCA of the USA, a coalition of YMCAs across the country, to focus on a strategy of changing policies, systems, and the environment, rather than starting educational or informational projects that could run out of money or steam. Local YMCAs were to bring together activists, government officials, school administrators and parents, the medical community, and other leaders to wield the broadest possible attack on the problem.

RWJF funded efforts in six states, including Illinois, and 32 communities. Chosen were cities and towns where the Y-USA’s earlier initiative — Pioneering Healthier Communities — was in place and capable of spearheading the new efforts. Among those receiving funds in 2010 were Chicago, Glen Ellyn, Joliet, Kankakee, Oak Park, and Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates.

There was no template for change, but Y-USA reports 2,705 policy changes to date. These fall under the foundation’s priorities of encouraging the purchase of healthier food and serving it in schools; the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables at corner stores and bodegas; increasing physical activity in school and after-school programs and in the community through better transportation systems such as bicycle and walking trails.

Locally, 18 leaders brought together by the West Cook YMCA in Oak Park laid out an action plan for the community. It focused on an ambitious goal — to change the nutritional requirements for babies on up, said Jill Moorhead, YMCA wellness coordinator and Pioneering Healthier Communities internal coach.

That means altering Oak Park’s health code to make fresher and healthier foods available in public and private day care centers and to other child care providers, Moorhead said. As the group discovered, the trick would be to make it happen without requirements so onerous that providers could not comply and would go out of business, leaving children without care, she said.

While daunting, that change would have the greatest reach, Moorhead said. “If we can affect (eating habits) from when they first put food in their mouths, they’ll always be there and they will not have to change later.”

New code provisions might be considered this year, she said, after issues ranging from substitutes for triple commercial sinks to food storage and cooperative buying are resolved by all stakeholders.

Y-USA offers these examples of changes made elsewhere:

  • In Wilton, Conn., a “pedestrian zone” has been created in the community of about 18,000, where sidewalks and trails connect youth-serving organizations and activity areas. Plus, an outdoor fitness center with four cardio stations has been installed near the high school.
  • In Adrian, Mich., a survey determined a lack of access to fresh fruits and veggies at 40 corner stores. A pilot program made apples and oranges available to some stores and may be expanded.
  • In Port Huron, Mich., physical education in elementary schools was doubled from one to two hours each week.
  • In Bristol, Tenn., fryers were removed from school cafeterias, and “Tasty Tuesdays” introduced students to fresh fruits and vegetables and increased their consumption of those foods by 10 percent.
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