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 (page 2)
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.
To create enthusiasm for this multilayered intervention, Economos met with the superintendent, assistant superintendents, members of the school committee, principals, city leaders and a local nutrition task force numerous times to build a strong foundation of support and to develop an intervention that would leverage existing energy to address the city's challenges.
The Shape Up initiative "catalyzed what was already happening in the city," remembers Roberta Bauer, chairperson of the Somerville School Committee. "They provided a vision, coordination, professional development and the tools to move us to the next level and beyond. They created a buzz that could be felt everywhere in the city."
But a successful communitywide campaign does not happen on the strength of buzz alone. Within the Somerville Public Schools, administrators sought improvements in cafeteria menu options and meal preparation. The leadership added 30 minutes of nutrition and wellness instruction each week to the curriculum and revamped recess to incorporate new equipment and facilitated games that encourage more activity. Bake sale fundraisers, while lucrative to the PTA, were curbed before lunch.
To successfully start and maintain programs districtwide required a cultural shift among staff, students and families. "I needed to be sure that our staff did not perceive Shape Up as something extra on their plates," says Snow, who was assistant superintendent from 1992 to 2006. "They needed to hear about the entire project so they could see their role was one small and important part in a communitywide effort." Feeling a part of a team, he believes, helped teachers and administrators to embrace the changes that were asked of them.
Mary Jo McClarney, Somerville's food service director, echoes that sentiment. "The initial resistance in the cafeteria was shorter lived than I anticipated because children were getting the message about healthy eating everywhere--in the classroom, at after-school programs, from their parents, in local restaurants, etc." Adds Tim O'Keefe, former physical education teacher and now K-12 supervisor of health and physical education: "Teachers who had received complaints for banning unhealthy snacks and treats in their classroom now felt community- and schoolwide support to stand by their principles."
Selling Shape Up as a team effort was aided by the enormous amount of support given to the school district by Economos, New Balance chair in childhood nutrition, and her colleages at Tufts. They provided the curricular materials, professional development, afterschool support and assessment and reporting services, enabling teachers to focus on the small changes they were being asked to make without compromising teaching time.
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