Posted December 14, 2012
Cities and states across the country deploy innovative strategies to improve nutrition and physical activity
By Lisel Loy and Laura Zatz
With the holidays upon us and a new year approaching, we have many reasons to celebrate. For those of us concerned about our nation’s obesity and chronic disease crisis, declining rates of childhood obesity in several cities and states provided another reason to celebrate after decades of disheartening news. Though these numbers were first reported in September by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The New York Times also called attention to these findings in an article earlier this week. Philadelphia and New York saw declines of 4.7% and 5.5% respectively while Mississippi and California saw declines of 13.3% and 1.1%. Given that rates of childhood obesity have been steadily increasing (in fact, tripling) since 1980, these decreases could mark an important turning point in the fight to improve our nation’s health.
While decreases of a few percentage points may seem insignificant to some, they can translate into significant health and economic benefits for our nation. Achieving a healthy body weight lowers the risk for many obesity-related health conditions—such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer and arthritis—which are also increasing at epidemic proportions. Currently obesity costs our nation an estimated $150-210 billion each year. In September, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health modeled the effects of decreasing average body mass index (BMI) by 5 percent by 2030. Achieving this decrease would save the nation approximately $650 billion in obesity-related costs by 2030 by preventing nearly 8 million cases of diabetes, 7 million cases of coronary heart disease and stroke, and 600,000 cases of cancer.
Cities and states hoping to achieve similar results may be wondering how they can emulate the success of places like Philadelphia and Mississippi—what “silver bullet” they can apply in their own locality. Scientific consensus from bodies such as the Institute of Medicine and increasing evidence from these leading cities and states, however, suggests there is unlikely to be a single “silver bullet”—rather, a systematic approach is needed that involves multiple sectors through a package of interventions aimed at multiple levels of individuals, families, communities and society. Our Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative was pleased to recognize strategies that echoed several key recommendations from our June report, Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens our Economic Future. Taking a systems approach, we organized our recommendations around four broad categories for action—families, schools, workplaces, and communities.
We wanted to highlight just a few of the many innovative ways these cities and states deployed strategies to improve nutrition and physical activity and how they aligned with some of our recommendations:
Healthy Schools Recommendation #1: Childcare providers should improve nutrition and physical activity opportunities for preschool-aged children
- In Mississippi, the state Department of Human Services partnered with the state Department of Health to develop and offer the Color Me Healthy program and training classes. The program trains preschool and childcare teachers in a nutrition and physical activity curriculum that incorporates food variety and physical activity using all five senses. It also includes parent education on nutrition and physical activity.
Healthy Schools Recommendation #2: Schools should improve food and nutrition education by aggressively implementing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
- In Philadelphia, the School District established nutrition standards in 2004 to improve the healthfulness of beverages served in schools, including limiting sugar-sweetened beverages and encouraging the consumption of water, milk and 100% juice. The District’s EAT.RIGHT.NOW nutrition education program provides teachers with a classroom curriculum and offers supplementary activities including assemblies, parent workshops, and after school programs.
Healthy Communities Recommendation #8: Local governments should use the planning process to change the built environment in ways that promote active living
- New York City has taken several steps to alter the built environment in a way to promote active living. Active design guidelines push architects and planners to design communities and spaces that encourage physical activity. For example, the guidelines recommend providing for a mix of uses in urban-scale developments and locating places of residence and work near destinations such as parks, walking trails, and waterfront recreation areas to foster physical activity.
Healthy Families Recommendation #2: USDA should ensure that all its nutrition assistance programs reflect and support federal Dietary Guidelines
- In California, the state Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program partnered with the Sesame Workshop to launch a year-long Healthy Habits campaign. 3,500 WIC staff coordinated their nutrition messaging and provided families with Get Healthy Now mini-kits, which delivered healthy living messages via a booklet and a CD. Program evaluation showed that participants remembered campaign messages; increased their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; and replaced whole milk with lower fat milk.
We salute the progress of these innovative cities and states and wish them continued success in their efforts to encourage health-promoting behaviors and improve the nutrition and physical activity environment. While this progress is encouraging, it by no means indicates that our work is complete. It took decades for obesity rates to climb this high so we should not expect them to recede in just a few years. As the IOM’s Committee on Accelerating Progress on Obesity Prevention noted, “Bold, widespread, and sustained action will be necessary to accelerate progress in obesity prevention.” We hope that the promising results and innovative practices highlighted above encourage other cities and states to follow their lead. BPC is committed to helping accelerate the uptake of evidence-based, systematic strategies such as the ones these pioneers have implemented.
Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative