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Let’s Move: Tackling childhood obesity in Pittsburgh

Elaine Labalme
January20/ 2012

The numbers are staggering:  30 percent of children in the U.S. are obese, a figure that rises to 50 percent in many disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here in Pittsburgh, the region leads the nation in cases of diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, diseases often borne of obesity. Left unchecked, these factors will contribute to a public health crisis whose cost, in terms of dollars and lives, will be devastating.


Aiming to address the problem as a community is Let’s Move Pittsburgh, a collective of policymakers, public and private funders, and health-care and service providers who have modeled their initiative after First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. Let’s Move seeks to tackle the problem of childhood obesity by encouraging kids to eat healthy, increase their physical activity and decrease  screen time. The Pittsburgh offshoot of this national movement recently convened a symposium hosted by the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where Executive Director Richard Piacentini has shepherded moves toward healthier eating that include a public restaurant devoid of hot dogs, chips and sodas.

“We eat out more these days and supermarkets carry far more kinds of foods,” notes Marge Petruska of the Heinz Endowments. “We have to ask ourselves ‘Is my community the best place in America to be as a child?’”

Echoing the need for a community-based approach is Madelyn Fernstrom of the UPMC Health Plan.  “We all want to improve the health of kids and many programs are available, but we often work in silos.  We need to work together.”

A blueprint for community action could be Somerville, Massachusetts, where Dr. Christina Economos, Associate Professor of the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, conducted a research study that led to Shape Up Somerville (SUS), a city-wide campaign that addresses the issue of childhood obesity in the Boston suburb. Since the 1960s, rates of obesity have doubled in 2- to 5-year-old kids, quadrupled in 6- to 11-year-olds and tripled in 12- to 19-year-olds. That’s why Economos focused her research on children in grades 1-3, when primary contributing factors toward childhood obesity (sugar-sweetened beverages, fast food in increased portion sizes, food advertising) take hold.

Steps that may actually spark social change, outlined in the Tufts study, include learning from other public-health campaigns (such as those centered around tobacco, recycling and seat belts); nurturing “spark plugs” in the community (those willing to be champions for a cause); recognizing the importance of economics; developing coalitions and using government strategically for bold policies; employing mass communication, including social media; and developing a clear plan.  Key to the success of SUS was the ability to listen, build relationships and establish trust, especially among parents and caregivers.

“There is a lot that parents can do,” says Economos. “They just don’t know what to do. We also need to educate teachers and school staff, especially food service staff.” The community transformed food service at local schools, set up farmers markets and trained local physicians to test, treat and refer cases of childhood obesity. Even restaurants got on board, eager to earn the SUS Seal of Approval for their establishments. SUS now has full-time staff managing the program and, with stakeholders working together, one group is quick to catalyze change in another.

While a program as comprehensive as SUS has yet to take hold in this region, there are a number of initiatives under way. Highmark’s Healthy High Five is a 5-year, $100 million program that has taught two million kids about nutrition and physical activity. The YMCA of Pittsburgh’s Seeds to Soup program is molding the gardeners of tomorrow at its urban garden in Hazelwood, while Kristin Hughes of CMU has designed FitWits games to educate families around portion size and design.

Instilling good habits in the very young is the challenge of many early childhood education programs and addressing it locally is Head Start’s “I Am Moving, I Am Learning” program.  Youngsters are encouraged to play and run outdoors while parents are taught to seek fresh fruits and vegetables, especially at farmers markets. Food educator Rosemary Traill brings the curriculum of the Food Studies Institute to life for schoolkids with hands-on programming that includes making squash pudding around Thanksgiving and a “soul stew” for Martin Luther King Day.

Sizable hurdles exist within the lunch programs at schools here and nationally. “The district’s food production facilities are lacking,” notes Michael Peck, Food Service Director for the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), in reference to PPS’ central processing area, where tens of thousands of meals are packaged daily for many city schools. It’s the lack of a real kitchen that hampers what the food service operation can do.  And then there’s the battle for acceptance of healthy foods.  “We no longer advertise healthy meals,” says Peck, “since kids shied away from them. So far, we haven’t had much success with the salad bar that goes into each school, but we have taken over the vending program and we’re working with a dairy to cut back on the sugar in our sweetened milk. We try to buy local, but it’s getting harder, since we’re competing with other organizations and restaurants for limited local product.”

Tazeen Chowdhury, Food Service Director for the Mt. Lebanon School District, is happy that her district has eliminated vending machines yet sensitive to the time crunch at lunch. “Kids try to rush through lunch so they can go play” at recess. “We need to get the classes aligned so that lunch is a priority.”

Will Let’s Move Pittsburgh be the answer? Noted food writer and author Mark Bittman, a recent Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures presenter, isn’t so sure. “I want more [than Let’s Move]. Michelle Obama is not an elected official; she has no real power. I want her husband to generate funds. They’re making it look like women’s work and not taking it seriously.

“A national Fat Tax on soda should happen yesterday and a national Fat Tax on junk food should happen within a year. What we need to do is make incremental changes to our diet, and eat more plants and less processed foods and animal products.”

Photographs of (top to bottom) Phipps Public Market; Richard Piacentini and Marge Petruska at Phipps’ vegetable garden; Mount Lebanon Middle School cafeteria; Tazeen Chowdhury.  Copyright Brian Cohen.

Elaine Labalme