Shape up Somerville - A District Tackles Childhood Obesity: A Boston Suburb Alters the Culture of Its Schools--And Work Routines in the Cafeteria--To Teach the Lifelong Lesson of Eating Well
Walking today through Somerville, Mass.'s Winter Hill Community School during school hours differs markedly compared to just a few years ago. Gone are the greasy potato chips and chocolate-chip cookies from the a la carte offerings in the cafeteria. Missing are the late morning fundraisers when children would fill up on cupcakes and other sweets before lunch. And banished are the student rewards of candy in the classroom.
Today children in all Somerville public schools can eat an unlimited amount of whole fruit at breakfast and lunch. Fresh salads, often made with local produce including greens from schoolyard gardens, are offered every day. A la carte options include bottled water, yogurt and other low-fat, low-sugar snacks. In some schools, students receive 30 minutes to eat lunch and play. And teachers frequently request Vegetable of the Month taste tests delivered to their rooms from the cafeteria to integrate into their math, science and/or social studies lessons.
How did the Somerville Public Schools make such a dramatic change in the health habits of students?
A Coordinated Approach
In early 2002, Christina Economos, a researcher and assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, approached the city of Somerville about creating a community-based intervention to prevent obesity in children in grades 1-3.
Somerville, a diverse city of 77,000 people just north of Boston, is the most densely populated city in New England. It's an eclectic mix of blue-collar families, young professionals, college students and recent immigrants from countries as diverse as E1 Salvador, Haiti and Brazil. The public schools serve nearly 5,000 students in grades pre-K through 12-64 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
By 2002, the leadership in the school district was becoming concerned about the growing problem of childhood obesity and its relationship to student performance. "In an era of high-stakes testing, we knew that we could not have our students falling asleep at their desks because of high-sugar diets," says Bob Snow, Somerville's assistant superintendent of curriculum at the time.
Emerging pockets of people throughout the city were organizing to improve nutrition and physical activity opportunities for children. Several schools had implemented the Planet Health curriculum. None of the elementary schools had vending machines accessible to students. The Universal School Breakfast program recently had been launched, and the new food service director, Mary Jo McClarney, a registered dietitian, was eager to bring in more fresh fruits and vegetables.
But there was still much to address. In addition to the a la carte offerings and unhealthy treats available throughout the day, menu options at the cafeteria were limited and relied heavily on processed foods. Aside from those required by the state and federal government, no school policies governed food services or physical activity for students. Most alarming was that 44 percent of the city's 1st through 3rd graders were overweight or at-risk of being overweight (a body mass index at the 85th percentile or above).
The resulting Shape Up Somerville project targeted the before-school, school day, after-school, home and community environments to expand opportunities for physical activity and availability of healthful foods. The specific interventions of this multifaceted campaign included:
• Increasing fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy in the school menu;
• Removing high-sugar/high-fat foods from a la carte offerings;
• Initiating a walk-to-school campaign;
• Implementing curriculum in 1st through 3rd-grade classrooms that included weekly 30-minute nutrition and physical-activity lessons in line with state curriculum frameworks and 10-minute daily "Cool Moves" allowing students to move around in their rooms;
• Enhancing recess with new equipment and game cards to encourage children to be active;
• Creating professional development for school staff and local pediatric/family medicine clinicians;
• Starting Healthy Eating Active Time Clubs, also known as HEAT, in all of the city's after-school programs;
• Circulating bimonthly newsletters for parents with coupons for free and reduced-price healthy foods;
• Staging family events and parent nutrition forums that target local ethnic groups;
• Creating and mailing annual health report cards to parents for each student that include body mass index measurements and resources to address weight concerns;
• Developing a list of Shape Up-approved area restaurants (21 joined the campaign);
• Organizing an annual Shape Up 5K Family Fitness Fair;
• Maintaining a regular presence in local media, including a monthly column in The Somerville Journal; and
• Devising a physical activity guide, annually revised, for children, adults and families.
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