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

Fed up with its "Slummerville" nickname, town tries to shape up.

January 08, 2009, 12:26 AM

June 22, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

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?"

But Shape Up Somerville didn't stop at schools. Many restaurants were convinced to offer half portions. And even the town mayor was convinced to join the crusade.

Mayor Joseph Curtatone walks to work many days, has an exercise buddy and preaches health whenever he can.

"Well, it has been interesting," said Curtatone. "You would never look at Somerville as the healthy town because we've historically been this gritty urban community that's always struggled to get ahead.

"It was Slummerville -- a tough place. If you never lived here, you probably drove through here. Just to traverse the streets was difficult, but that's changing and has begun to change. Again, we're becoming sustainable and it's a great place to live, work, raise your family and raise your kids."

In fact, the mayor relishes in the results of the Shape up Somerville study, which found that 8-year-olds were gaining weight more slowly, about a pound less than before. It might not sound like much but it is significant.

Curtatone wants other communities to say: "If we come together and work towards a common goal, that we can actually make a difference."

And Economos is taking her show on the road, trying it out in four rural areas across the country. Perhaps surprisingly, considering all of the open space, rural areas can be really difficult places to be healthy.

Vivica Kraak is a Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisor for Save the Children, a group committed to helping kids in need. "Rural areas don't have the infrastructure," she said. "They don't have the resources for roads. There are some places that don't have sidewalks.

"The local park is not safe for children here to play," said Kraak. "We're really working on identifying what the challenges are and the type of resources and partners we need to make it a more physical activity-friendly environment for children."

In the farming town of Terra Bella, Calif., population 3,466, Economos is working with Save The Children to gather health information on families. They are interviewing them about their eating habits.

Cameras are also given to parents to shoot their kids' environments with an eye for "obstacles" and "opportunities" to be healthy.

Maggie Andrade, a mother of three who does data entry at a health care clinic, signed up for the program to learn how her family can have a healthier lifestyle. She admits to having many barriers.

"If there are any sidewalks, they're in poor condition. The heat, the heat is extreme here. There are no places for kids to go that's safe to be indoors here. There is no YMCA here. There are no indoors activities whatsoever. Poor lighting at night. No playgrounds, no parks, nowhere for them to go. We're pretty much stuck with the house, whatever you can do at home," she said.

Despite these obstacles, Andrade has used Shape Up to keep her family healthy.

"Now I think about what I'm feeding them before I give it to them," she explained. "Because I work full-time, it's sometimes easier to just feed them the not-so-healthy stuff. Maybe I can learn to incorporate the good stuff in with the fast stuff so we can get healthier."

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