Simple steps yield big results on obesity

April 7, 2008 3:48:11 PM PDT
Right now, about 16 per cent of American kids are overweight, a number that's risen dramatically over the past 2 decades. But an effort in some Philadelphia city schools is making a dent in that.

Nomfondo Msoni, an educator with the Food Trust, hands out envelopes to 4th graders at Fairhill elementary at 6th & Somerset, telling them, "Don't open them yet... Now, 3, 2, 1 - Open!"

A table of girls ooh and aah excitedly, as they and other student tear through the paper.

The 4th graders don't know they are pioneers. They're too busy having fun in this game, learning about food stores in their neighborhood.

It's phase 2 of a study between Temple University, and the Food Trust.

Phase 1 is already over, and was a big success.

In the 2-year project at 10 Philadelphia public schools, the rate of overweight kids was cut in half through simple measures:

Gary Foster, Ph.D., of Temple University's Center for Obesity Research and Education (CORE), says, "Limiting the amount of fat in products, sodium, cholesterol. Removing sodas from schools, removing candy from schools. Those were the principal components."

But changing the environment is school is only part of the equation.

Now, students are learning how to make better choices at the corner store.

Philadelphia has more corner stores and fast food outlets close to schools than any other city in America.

Today, students are mapping out stores, giving them red, yellow, and green lights for their food offerings.

Cedric Montgomery is re-thinking his snack choices. "I like to eat candy, but now, I'm learning that's a red light."

Msomi of the Food Trust says 4th graders are anxious to learn, very observant, and very honest. "They are incredibly, incredibly open. I learn a lot from them in getting to know what the climate is in the school and the community. You know, how many places are around? you tell me - what's a good price point for kids? why afre kids attracted to chips and snacks?"

The Food Trust is also working with stores like Romano's Grocery, on East Luzerne Street, getting healthy foods into stores, and get kids buying them. Pennsylvania has an initiative helping stores in the inner city renovate and improve. That enabled Romano's to buy new refrigeration and freezer cases, so that it could stock more water, and healthy foods.

Big bins of fresh fruit and vegetables line the center of the store, and a huge display case carries single-serving packs of snacks. That's another component of the drive to improve kids' eating habits.

Sandy Sherman, Ph.D., of the Food Trust, says most store owners have been positive in dicussing changes. "Kids are their customers, and they want to do what's best for the kids. They're willing to work with us, as long as the students buy the food."

The children in the programs also receive media literacy education, so they understand they are marketign targets. Sherman says, "They look at the package, they don't know what it tastes like. They've seen the commercials, so we creat advertising that uses the same marketing, so they can both analyze what they've usually been doing, and then we use similar marketing to guide them to more healthier products."