One Town Gets Children to Live a Healthy Lifestyle
By Sari Harrar
Want your kids to eat healthy, exercise, and enjoy it? Here's how parents in
Somerville, MA, turned the kid-obesity epidemic around.
Five-year-old Ben Tull pulled a big, ripe apple out of his Bob the Builder
backpack one afternoon three years ago — and launched a health revolution at
"The school cafeteria had given kids — even kindergartners — whole fruit
at lunch, and Ben was so excited he brought his home to share with his brother,
his dad, and me. He called it 'The Family Fruit,'" recalls Ben's mother,
Anna Huckabee Tull. Her son, who used to eat few fruits, and only after his mom
had peeled and sliced them for him, was suddenly thrilled to have an entire
apple. "Ever since, he's arrived home with fruit almost daily. And he
started eating things I never thought he'd try, like tangerines and pears. I
was blown away."
That was just the beginning. Thanks to Shape Up Somerville — a
groundbreaking antiobesity program in Somerville, MA, spearheaded by public
schools, local government, and Tufts University — the Tull family not only eats
more healthily, they've begun biking around town for fun. And Ben, now in third
grade, has started packing his own healthy snacks to earn extra points in a
classroom good-eating competition. "We had wanted to be health-conscious,
but Ben's led the way for the whole family," says Tull, 43.
Five years ago, when Somerville launched the battle for its children's
health, the odds against the city of 77,000 seemed insurmountable. Almost 45
percent of its first, second, and third graders were overweight — 50 percent
higher than the national average. The high-speed commuter traffic thundering
through on its way to nearby Boston and the lack of open space (95 percent of
Somerville's four square miles is developed) meant that kids had few
opportunities for physical activity. Most ate far fewer than the recommended
five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The unofficial Somerville
High School lunch? Cool Ranch Doritos and blue Gatorade.
But the Shape Up Somerville program worked. Kids got closer to their ideal
weights, grew healthier, and actually enjoyed it. During the first year,
2003-04, students in grades 1, 2, and 3 gained, on average, about one pound
less as they grew than children in other comparable towns. The shift sounds
small, but to the scientists, it's remarkable. When the best news about kids'
obesity we've had in 25 years was May's report from the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention that skyrocketing rates may have leveled off, Somerville
bucked the national trends — within the program's first school year of
operation. And while the study focused on younger elementary schoolkids, the
wholesale changes the town made likely benefited every child in the system,
right up through high school.