WBUR’s Martha Bebinger reports that a targeted approach to combating obesity in Fitchburg, a former mill town 50 miles from Boston, has paid off: there are 500 fewer kids who are overweight or obese today than there were two years ago.
How’d they do it? There were no magic tricks, just a willingness to work together to improve eating habits, amp up exercise and educate the town about healthier lifestyle choice overall. Fitchburg’s evolution begin with its youngest residents, Martha writes:
The change begins in day care centers and pre-schools with songs about the power of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. At snack time, preschoolers drink water, not juice. Children of all ages are planting community gardens and the city has hired teenagers to spread the word about healthy living among their peers.
“We used to go to their meetings at City Hall,” said 16-year-old Mari Perez-Cruz who started working on the anti-obesity campaign two years ago. “We were confused because it was like a bunch of adults and we were just there, just sitting there, listening and we had no idea what they were talking about.”
Then Perez-Cruz had an epiphany.
“It was a training that I will always remember about the fast food burgers, how they made it bigger and fatter, the muffins and the donuts and all that, how they doubled the size,” Perez paused, grimacing at the memory. “When you think about it, it’s nasty.”
Now Perez-Cruz is on a crusade against sugary juices and her friend Ana Herrera, also 16, has become an around-the-clock nutrition adviser.
“A lot of my friends, since they know what kind of job I have, they always text me,” Herrera said. They say, “I have this and this and this, what do you think I should get and I’m like, well, it depends on what you ate earlier.”
The town also held supermarket tours for new parents to help them read food labels and trips with naturalists to get city kids outdoors. But obstacles remain, for instance, an exercise-filled, healthy-food-laden week at school might be followed by a weekend sitting in front of a screen. Indeed, with screens, sugary drinks and junk-food everywhere, it’s critical to find other options for health and make them readily available. As Mary Gianetti, a lead organizer for FUN N’FITchburg tells Martha: “The key is making the healthy choice the easy choice.”