Planting the seed: Models for other communities

Chicago, Fresno work to create activity space, healthy vending options
Thursday, November 10, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 3:48 p.m. CST, Monday, November 14, 2011
The obesity rate has increased in 16 states in the past year, including Missouri, which is the 11th-most-obese state. In 2009, Columbia was among nine leading communities in the nation that received more grant money provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to promote physical activities and healthy eating. The other leading sites were Chicago, Seattle, Louisville, Ky., Somerville, Mass., Washington, Baldwin Park, Calif., Oakland, Calif., and California’s Central Valley. The sites were identified as having already shown potential for implementing similar projects and were asked to serve as mentors to other communities. Now 50 communities across the country are participating to decrease obesity rates by 2015.

COLUMBIA — Of the 50 communities participating in the Health Kids, Healthy Communities project, Columbia has been designated one of the nine "leading cities" with providing an example to others through mentoring.

Here's a look at how three of the other leading cities are trying to reduce obesity:

In Chicago, the focus has been park-centric. Since the snack vending contract for the city's parks expired about the time the partnership began, Chicago was able to explore healthier options, said Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, lead health organizer in the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and director of the Chicago Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities Partnership.

By the end of 2011, the 98 vending machines in Chicago's parks will offer snacks that contain less sugar, calories, sodium and fat, such as baked chips and pretzels.

The city's beverage contract expires in the spring; Gomez-Feliciano said she hopes the winter will be spent talking about getting similar options in those machines as well.

Chicago has also taken a policy approach by reducing the speed limit in parks that are connected by a boulevard system to make it safer for pedestrians.

King County, Wash., has directed its attention to culturally diverse public housing communities.

New standards are being tested that guide how much time children should spend in front of a TV or computer, the kinds of snacks they eat and the amount of physical activity they get. The King County Housing Authority plans to adopt these standards for child care providers who work in the housing communities, said Elizabeth Westburg, resident services manager at the housing authority.

She said the county housing authority hopes to develop similar guidelines for summer and after-school programs as well. The housing authority has also replaced food in convenience stores with healthier options and plans are under way to increase overall pedestrian safety.

These projects were selected because after program leaders asked community members what their concerns about childhood obesity and obesity prevention were, Westburg said. 

For the Central Valley, Calif., area, a focal point has been the public schools. In Fresno, where there are few parks, the largest elementary school in the city opened its classrooms and green spaces to the community for yoga classes and pickup soccer games. 

Even though the outcome isn't directly related to obesity prevention, the benefits are evident, said Sabina Gonzalez-Erana, community building specialist for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. 

"You just see a flood of kids every weekend," she said. "There's more of a sense of community in that neighborhood." 

Soda has been removed from the vending machines in the area's public schools and drinking water is now more readily available to students. The barrier was the perception that kids don't like drinking water.

"They drink it," Gonzalez-Erana said. "They drink it, and it's not a problem."

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