'Shape Up Somerville' Has Students Trading Soft Drinks for Salads

If our experience as parents, baby sitters and school teachers has taught us anything, it's that 5- and 6-year-olds aren't supposed to like broccoli. It's green, healthy and to many it just tastes funny.

But if you travel to a small city in Massachusetts you'll find a place where that generalization is proved wrong.

Somerville, Mass., a city with a population of 78,000, is an unlikely place that might be winning the war on fat. What's going on there in schools and homes all over the city is nothing short of a revolution.

"This was a communitywide effort," Professor Christina Economos, a professor at Tufts University, told ABC's "Nightline." "[We] worked before school, during school, after school with the community and with the homes. We engaged everyone."

Five years ago, Economos launched a research program called Shape up Somerville. In doing so, she chose to fight the obesity battle on difficult terrain.

'Slummerville' Goes Healthy

Somerville is a gritty, working class, densely populated city outside Boston. Just 3 percent of its land is open space. For years it earned the not-so-friendly nickname "Slummerville."

In short, it's not necessarily the type of place you think of first of when you think of making a healthy town or making a healthy community.

Economos agrees. "[We] started with a community that represents many urban settings in this country. Where there are children who are gaining weight unnecessarily because it's difficult to exercise, there aren't a lot of healthy food options, and quite frankly they have difficult lives."

The basic goal of her study was to see what would happen if community fought the war on fat by going nuclear -- throwing everything at it at once.

"I think people are starting to understand that to affect health it's not just individual education and behavior change, it's creating healthy environments. And so we engage the police force, the city of Somerville, the community members to really reshape the environment so that people can live a healthy lifestyle."

With a $1.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the city went about making changes big and small. They repainted crosswalks so people could see them better and feel better about using them. They hired more crossing guards for the schools. They say their efforts led to a 5 percent increase in kids walking to school.

Hold the Fries…Where's the Salad?

They also tried to change the eating habits at school cafeterias.

At schools all over Somerville, students no longer see the fatty foods of yesterday, but healthier items including a fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella salad.

Mary Jo McLarney is the food service director for schools in Somerville. She has taken French fries off the menu, and increased yearly spending on produce from $90,000 to $165,000.

"It is all fresh," she said. "What we've really tried to do is bring in more fresh produce and we try and feature fresh fruit every day at breakfast and at lunch we have an unlimited fruit policy where children can have as much fruit as they want."

So far, these healthy options have proved a success. "I think the food has to be good," said McLarney. "It has to be the best we can make it all of the time. It needs to look good, taste good, it needs to be fresh. Just like you, what makes you want to eat some place?"

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