Somerville Works Together Against Child Obesity

My hometown made the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 10, 2007 (As Child Obesity Surges, One Town Finds Way to Slim: Somerville, Mass Goes Beyond Schools to Push Exercise, Good Eating by Tara Parker-Pope). I do love how they characterize a densely-populated urban area as a town.

Anyhow, it’s good to learn things you don’t know about your own community from nationally-published media. It sounds like an intelligent program that’s achieving excellent results.

The Somerville study is believed to be the first controlled experiment demonstrating the value of a communitywide effort. It’s only a small dent, but slowing the pace of weight gain among kids is the key to conquering childhood obesity, says lead author Christina Economos, an assistant professor at Tufts University. “It could be the difference between graduating overweight and graduating at a normal weight,” she says. “We need to think about how it plays out long term.”

The Somerville program, designed primarily by Dr. Economos and fellow researchers at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, offers a surprising blueprint. It didn’t force schoolchildren to go on diets. Instead, the goal was to change their environment with small and inexpensive steps. Dr. Economos, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and the mother of two school-age children, has long believed that the battle against obesity can’t be fought at the dinner table alone but requires social and political changes.

For inspiration, she turned to other successful social movements of the past 40 years, analyzing tobacco control, seat-belt use and breastfeeding. All were thorny public-health problems lacking a quick fix, yet significant progress was made on each. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Dr. Economos a $1.5 million grant to find out whether the same social forces could work in nutrition.

The goal of the researchers’ Shape Up plan was to have Somerville children burn more calories through exercise and take in fewer with a healthier diet, for a total benefit of 125 calories a day.

I’m particularly pleased by the efforts to encourage walking to school. I live next to an elementary school, and each day a convoy of cars jam up the streets of our neighborhood as parents drop kids off. This bothers me for several reasons:

  1. All the wasted gas and emissions caused by driving kids to school when numerous other options are available. School buses, for one, would be more efficient. Walking and public transit are even better.
  2. The congestion caused by all those cars. Again school buses would reduce the traffic, but the roads are narrow so they still might cause obstructions. Thus walking and public transit are still better options.
  3. <cranky old man voice> When I was a boy I walked 3/4’s mile to elementary school every day! Why when I was in middle school I walked nearly a mile just to get to the bus stop. Kids these days! </cranky old man voice> A true cranky old man would add “And we liked it!” to the end, but I’m young enough to remember that I hated it, especially when it was cold. Still I do see parents walking their children to school and that looks like fun for everyone.

Anyhow, I need Mayor Joseph Curtatone to advocate for programs to help me lose weight too.