At William H. Ziegler Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, students are getting acquainted with vegetables and healthy snacks. Photo by Jessica Kourkinos for the New York Times. Caption by the New York Times. Below, left, Lena Hatchett (right) and Loretta Brown during the October 4th symposium at Loyola. Photo by Michael Romain for the Village Free Press.
Loyola enlists community members, childcare experts, school administrators, government officials and business owners to help tackle Proviso’s childhood obesity problem
Thursday, October 16, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Among the sixth graders enrolled in District 89, more than half — 51 percent — are either overweight or obese, according to Garry Sigman, a professor of Pediatrics and the medical director of the Loyola Pediatric Weight Management Program.
Sixth graders in DuPage County, by comparison, are overweight or obese at a rate of about 33 percent — an 18 percent disparity.
The disparities become even more exaggerated when comparing the obesity rates of different racial and ethnic groups, with blacks and Hispanics experiencing 51 percent and 21 percent higher obesity rates than whites, respectively, according to data provided by the DuPage County Health Department.
“These disparities are very important,” said Dr. Sigman, who has been monitoring District 89 students since 2013. “It’s important that we focus on them and on how we can create a solution within our community and with our community members.”
According to a handout prepared by the Pediatric Weight Management Program, the “rate of childhood obesity in the United States has tripled since the 1970s. Children and teens who are obese can have significant health problems, including high blood pressure, Type 2, diabetes, breathing problems or trouble sleeping. They risk more health problems as they grow into adults.”
Dr. Sigman presented this data at an October 4th health symposium at Loyola University Chicago’s Health Sciences Campus. The event comprised the first gathering of the newly formed Proviso Partners for Health (PPH), an organization dedicated to devising policy solutions to childhood obesity in the Proviso area.
Lena Hatchett, an assistant professor at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine and director of Community and University Partnerships, said that a 15-member advisory committee had been planning the October 4th launch since this spring. She said before PPH was constituted, the university’s approach to combating Proviso’s adolescent obesity problem was informal and decentralized.
“We had all been working separately before this,” she said at the symposium. “It was these people working over here and those people working over there, but now we’re all coming together.”
Health experts, business owners, government officials and community leaders from around Proviso Township and places beyond were gathered at the symposium to brainstorm and devise long-term, comprehensive strategies for tackling the childhood obesity crisis in the area.
Hatchett was central to many of the isolated partnerships that existed before PPH was formed, collaborating with organizations such as Maywood Fine Arts to plant community gardens throughout the village.
Loretta Brown, a local gardening enthusiast, said that she collaborated with Hatchett, Cook County, the Illinois Prairie Path Association and the University of Illinois, to grow gardens along Prairie Path and throughout Maywood.
“I maintain the gardens and Lena gets her medical students — and I get other students — to come over and to help,” she said. “We have gardens now along the path at First, 11th and 17th Avenues.”
Recently, after persistent prodding, Brown was able to persuade the Maywood Park District to grow and maintain a garden annexing its Ninth Avenue headquarters.
The logic is that if local youth become more familiar with fresh food in their environment, they’ll be more likely to want to eat it — a scenario that unfortunately seems distant given the present reality.
One of the most prevalent concerns mentioned by those in attendance was the general aversion to healthy foods among many of the youth they work with and encounter — an aversion that is only encouraged by current school lunch programs and meals served in homes.
“What’s always amazing to me is to see how slow the progress is in school lunch changes and just the amount of junk that is eaten by kids,” said Elizabeth Lippit, executive director of the Infant Wellness Society’s Children’s Clinic in Oak Park.
“It’s appalling,” she said.
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During a workshop session, one childcare provider servicing a predominantly Hispanic demographic said that she’s tried to feed her children healthy alternatives, but those only get rebuffed by the kids.
“The children are not willing to really eat [a lot of healthy foods],” she said. “We’re really limited as to what they’ll eat, because I can give them all the healthy food I want, but if they don’t eat it it’s useless. It has to start at home, because if the parents aren’t introducing certain things, it’s really hard for me to push them.
“We do brocolli, and the kids go, ‘Uh, uh.’ They’ll lick it and push it to the side,” she said. “Corn, potatoes — they’ll have them any kind of way — fried, baked, pureed. But if I tried to feed them something they don’t really get at their homes, they won’t even consider it.”
Robert Carter, food services director for District 209, said that the students he serve have been forced to adapt to meals with less sodium and more whole grains, vegetables and fruits than before. The changes are part of the USDA’s new emphasis on providing students with healthier lunches, but the changes haven’t been easy.
“The kids don’t understand the changes,” Carter said. “Anytime you get something new, you get a drawback. The big complaint is that they don’t like the new food, but it isn’t going anywhere.”
Adam Becker, the executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, said that a major part of PPH’s approach would be based, in part, on comprehensive policy changes at the socioeconomic level.
He said that the traditional approach to thinking about obesity has been through the prism of “teaching people, trying to motivate or change attitudes, or trying to train people and give them new skills.”
Instead, Becker noted, people should think about solutions to childhood obesity through an ecological framework.
He said that this framework approaches the problem in a way that doesn’t isolate the individual, communal and societal perspectives from each other, but “helps us to think about all these factors across all levels.”
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During the symposium, the organization facilitated workshops in the areas of early childhood, schools, physical activity and the built environment, and community food access.
“When we think about obesity, childhood or otherwise, we need to think about … how it affects the family and the community overall,” said Loretta Brown during a session that included Mayor Edwenna Perkins and State Rep. Kathleen Willis (77th).
For Lennel Grace, the president of Neighbors of Maywood Community Organization (NOMCO), the diversity of participants only encouraged the kind of synthesis that Becker referenced.
“Within our group, we had every element represented,” said Grace, who was in the session with Brown. “As a result, that served as a catalyst for advancing a number of great ideas that were all grouped around this specific issue. That kind of on the spot, immediate collaboration was great.” VFP
Small and Big Policy Solutions
Participants offered an array of possible lower-level, micro policy solutions, in addition to higher level policy solutions, to tackling childhood obesity. Some of these are included below:
- More parent education and involvement should be encouraged by funding various programs with money obtained through a tax on beverages that are high in sugar.
- Good, functional kitchens are a big barrier to healthy food in schools. Since many food service operations are completed under contract with a company, it might be worthwhile for school districts and wellness committees to work together with contract companies to insure that a certain percentage of the contract is put into renovation of school kitchens so healthier foods can be provided.
- Administrators could devise a pre-approved list of healthy snacks to be sold at sporting events or school celebrations, and parents and/or teachers could arrange to purchase those from the school service vendor on site, so they wouldn’t have to haul them.
- Physical therapy and the built environment isn’t going to change unless what comes from this meeting engenders a coordinated council that encourages physical activity among youth, said Dr. Sigman. This council would identify people and/or organizations who are already involved in providing more physical activity among youth and eventually institutional partners, such as the school district and municipalities, would be brought in.
- Municipalities should reduce the barriers that citizens face when trying to establish their own healthy initiatives. For instsance, trying to have a community garden is hard due to certain zoning restrictions, which should be addressed. Also, the tax structure in Maywood is really not welcoming to new businesses, so that’s something that can be addressed at a larger policy level so businesses such as grocery stores and healthier restaurants are enticed to locate here. VFP
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