Community initiative takes new approach to obesity

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:43 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — At Moser's supermarket on Business Loop 70 West, a red, child-sized M&M filled with candy grins at passing shoppers.

The M&M wears a sign advertising the chocolate that's on sale inside its stomach. Red’s not the only giant M&M in town; the Walgreens on Providence Road has an orange one.

Action teams at a glance

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods has divided into six different teams designed to combat childhood obesity through policy changes. Each team has identified goals to pursue within 2011.

Food asset mapping

  • Create a map of the food deserts in Columbia.
  • Plan a local/regional food summit and invite a nation speaker.
  • Establish a food policy council.
  • Begin establishing local/regional food partnerships.

Food production at home and in the community

  • Create community gardens on public land.
  • Plant fruit trees on public land.
  • Implement crop production into the career center's curriculum.
  • Investigate planning and zoning details as they relate to community gardens.

Affordable and accessible fresh, healthy produce

  • Launch Columbia Farmer's Market "Access to Healthy Foods" program.
  • Pilot youth-run Farmers Market satellite in Douglass neighborhood.
  • Support Centro Latino's Comedor Popular "The People's Diner."

Neighborhood association revitalization

  • Facilitate dialogue between police department and neighborhood associations.
  • Reinstate policy of police attendance at neighborhood association meetings.
  • Organize neighborhood association organization workshops in conjunction with Love INC and Calvary Baptist Church.
  • Establish neighborhood association in Worley Street Park area.
  • Begin letter writing-campaign encouraging First Ward residents to communicate to local media the importance of neighborhood associations.

Public transportation

  • Develop marketing materials on the benefits of public transportation.
  • Conduct a comparison of public transportation in other cities.
  • Advocate for clear, easily readable public transportation timetables.
  • Research new funding sources for public transportation.

Youth advocacy

  • Scout out teenage members
  • Examine other youth advocacy groups.
  • Begin letter writing campaigns.
  • Establish leadership positions for young people.



To join one of the Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhood teams, contact Sam Robinson, director of health community initiatives at PedNet Coalition, by calling 239-3887 or e-mail at


The "F is for Fat" report defines obesity as exceeding a body mass index of 30. Use the calculator below to determine your BMI.

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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation cites the intense marketing of unhealthy foods as a contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic.

In December 2008, PedNet received a $400,000 Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As part of the grant, the advocacy group Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods was formed to encourage citywide food policies to counter obesity.

“Food marketers are very good and strategic at getting families to buy the things that have the most profit margins for them,” Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods project director Ian Thomas said. “Typically, that’s unhealthy food.”

Nationally, two-thirds of adults and nearly one-third of children and teenagers are obese or overweight. Furthermore, obesity rates for adolescents between the age of 12 and 19 have tripled since 1970 and quadrupled for ages 6 to 11. These overweight children are more than twice as likely to die before age 55, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future."

“There’s growing understanding that influencing the environmental policy issues is the best way to create a healthier environment and create healthier kids,” Thomas said.

The Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department has been involved in several obesity initiatives such as the Walking School Bus, cooking classes and Healthy Start — all developed since 2002 to counter obesity at the local level.

While those efforts were mostly program-driven, Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods is designed to take a different tack and address obesity through policy changes.

“Not to cut programming short because it certainly plays its role. It gets people involved,” said Stacia Reilly, health promotion coordinator for the Health Department. “Policies have more long-lasting, sustainable outcomes.”

Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods is one of 50 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grants. Other cities are using the grants to help convenience stores stock fruits and vegetables. City health departments are creating marketing campaigns to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables daily. Policies have been adopted that let people use vacant land for community gardens or provide access to homegrown food.

At one Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods meeting, members discussed a variety of ways to improve the food environment in Columbia and use policy to reduce obesity.

In the next year, those leading the initiative plan to pursue solutions including the planting of fruit trees on public lands, increasing public transportation, piloting a youth-run farmers market in the Douglass Park neighborhood and laying the groundwork for a food policy council.

Other long-range possibilities include ideas that could require political muscle: encouraging a tax on sweetened beverages and the removal of unhealthy foods from the eye level of children in stores.

Thomas believes smiling cartoon faces on calorie-laden boxes and toys in kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants gives children incentives to beg. At Moser’s on Business Loop 70 West, there’s a line of cereal boxes with cartoon characters on the second shelf from the bottom — at arm's reach for a small child.

Moser's buys groceries from Associated Wholesale Grocers in Kansas City.  The company sends an expert to determine where products are placed.

"I don’t think there’s any hidden agenda on (the wholesaler's) part," Manager Chris Hatchison said. "Price sells cereal to begin with. It doesn’t have anything to do with the box."

A recent report from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity said that even if children stay out of the cereal aisle, they're exposed to vigorous marketing campaigns from cereal companies such as Kellogg, Post and General Mills, according to the Rudd Center's Cereal FACTS report.

“There’s all sorts of marketing and product placement to get the kids to be the decision-makers on the shopping trips,” Thomas said.

According to the Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity report by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, children as young as 2 can develop a brand preference based on a 30-second commercial. Likewise, obesity rates increase with the amount of television watched.

Research shows cereal companies spend more than $156 million per year marketing to children, Cereal FACTS said. These cereals have 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than products designed for adults.

"The cereals marketed to children fail every reasonable nutrition test, yet according to the food industry are 'better-for-you' foods," the report said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants and Children program did not approve any of the 13 most advertised cereals for inclusion in its food packages, and none of the cereals would qualify to advertise to children in the United Kingdom.

Fruity Pebbles, Cocoa Pebbles and Cookie Crisp have some of the worst ratings and were all within a child's eye level at several local groceries. Healthier cereals such as Special K, Total and Fiber One were often placed higher.

“If you look at what it costs to buy enough vegetables for a week’s balanced diet at the farmers market and compare that to six happy meals and some sugary cereal, it’s no contest,” Thomas said. “That part is very difficult to solve.”

In October, Sustainable Farms and Communities ran a trial program for people with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards, which replaced food stamps, to be able to use them at the Columbia Farmers Market. The program used grant money to double each dollar spent on food at the market. The group plans to explore more ways to make the project possible.

Thomas hopes the match program can eventually be supplemented by taxing unhealthy foods such as sweetened beverages. Studies indicate that a 10 percent increase in the price of sweetened beverages could reduce consumption by 8 percent, according to a 2009 Rudd Center report, "Soft Drink Taxes: a Policy Brief."

“The idea of a tax or fee on the purchase of sweetened beverages would create a funding which would be a subsidy for fruits and vegetables at the farmers market,” Thomas said.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation compared the prospect of taxing sweetened beverages to the tax on cigarettes. Increasing cigarette taxes is the single most effective policy approach to reducing tobacco use, according to a research brief from the foundation. Furthermore, portions of those taxes fund comprehensive tobacco control programs.

Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with MU Extension, said food policies revolve around incentives and disincentives. Incentives allow easier access to healthy and nutritious foods, while disincentives make it more difficult to obtain high-calorie and fatty products.

“Policy at all kinds of levels — the local levels and up to the federal levels — shapes what food is available,” she said.

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