Childhood Obesity Rates Declining in Eastern Mass.

Somerville program called 'a model for the nation'.

A park opening in Somerville. Photo via Somerville Facebook.

A park opening in Somerville. Photo via Somerville Facebook.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely to public health, named 11 locations in the United States that are addressing the childhood obesity epidemic in real ways, and seeing real change. Some of the 11 locations are whole states (California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia); some are cities (Philadelphia, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, and Kearney, Neb.); and two are regions (Vance and Grainville Counties, N.C., and Eastern Massachusetts). Hey, that’s us!

Our region recently reported a 12.4 percent drop in obesity rates among children under age six, according to the RWJF. Between the years 2004 and 2008, childhood obesity has declined 21.4 percent in Eastern Mass. The RWJF named a number of programs contributing to the cause like:

Mass in Motion, a statewide program promoting opportunities for healthy eating and active living in schools, workplaces, child-care centers, state agencies, and communities; Boston Public Health Commission’s wellness campaign which helped implement a wellness policy for Boston Public Schools, ban sales of sugary drinks on city property, and start campaigns to make neighborhoods more walkable; Cambridge Healthy Children Task Force, which promotes “5-2-1” guidelines for children through a variety of programs in schools and neighborhoods; and Get Fit Gloucester, which promotes walking, bicycling, and improved access to healthy and affordable foods.

But the RWJF specially called out Shape Up Somerville, a campaign devoted to increasing daily physical activity and promoting healthy eating. Shape Up Somerville was launched as a community-based participatory research project in 2002 with a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Tufts University. (The program now operates independently.)

Some of the key elements to the innovative program are school food service reform, improving physical education programming and gymnasium equipment in schools, adding an urban agriculture ordinance designed to create easier access to healthy foods (Somerville was the first community in Massachusetts to do so), and many more.

According to new research from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Tufts University School of Medicine, community wide interventions can be an effective approach to reducing childhood obesity rates. Researchers studied data from the first 20 calendar months of the Shape Up Somerville program. Schoolchildren gained less weight and were less likely to be obese or overweight than schoolchildren in two similar control communities. The results are published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

“The initial study’s blueprint told us that making the healthy choice the easy choice required a community-based effort, holistically addressing the systems that shape our environment,” Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone says in the report. “A top-down plan cannot address the needs of a diverse community. It cannot sustain over the long haul, because leadership has limited time to devote any single program, and leadership also changes over time. Cultivating a strong grassroots effort is the only way to see an effort like this take root, sustain and grow.”