First Lady Michelle Obama launched her "Let's Move" campaign to end childhood obesity last year, and pointed to Somerville, Mass., as a model city where civic and educational leaders are creating a culture of healthy living for young residents. In particular, Somerville Public Schools' (SPS) wide-ranging efforts to improve lunch and breakfast programs exemplify a core goal of Let's Move— a goal also at the center of the federal Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.
And the Massachusetts Health Council honored Somerville last year as the healthiest city in the state. "We are all committed to providing a nurturing, supportive environment for our students to start them off on the right path to health and wellness," says Tony Pierantozzi, the district superintendent.
Somerville's communitywide initiative to improve nutrition and increase physical activity has been evolving in this suburb of Boston since 2002. That was the year Tufts University, with funding from the Centers for Disease Control, began "Shape Up Somerville," a multimillion-dollar study of how various interventions might affect students in grades 1-3, 44 percent of whom were deemed overweight.
A Fresh Start
SPS food service administrators jumped at the chance to reinvent their program during the three-year study. They discarded school fryers and unhealthy menu items, introduced more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and educated children, parents and staff about choosing, cooking and eating nutritious foods and snacks. By the time the Tufts researchers packed up their student body-mass-index charts and files in 2005, the hundreds of Somerville students they had studied had gained an average of one pound less per year than their peers in nearby districts who were eating traditional fare. "It was really a culture change," says Jeanne Irwin, SPS director of food services. "It's a long process, teaching people how to become cooks as opposed to ‘lunch ladies' who heat and serve food. Seventy percent of our menu is now cooked from scratch."
Between 2007 and 2011, district spending on locally grown vegetables and fruits rose from $5,000 to $90,000 per year, thanks in part to the Massachusetts Preferential Purchasing Law of 2006, which supports public schools' procuring food from local farmers whenever feasible. And as of this fall, chocolate milk will disappear from K8 menus.
"Since the Tufts project ended, the district has taken the pieces we knew we could sustain and continued to enhance them," says Gretchen Kinder, chief strategic planner and grant writer for SPS. Numerous grants have allowed the district to employ a nutrition education coordinator, establish salad bars and edible gardens at schools, and teach cycling skills to children interested in biking to school. A partnership with Reebok is being piloted that provides free, standards-aligned play programs to elementary students before the start of the school day.
It Takes a Healthy Village
Meanwhile, city administrators led by Mayor Joe Curtatone and a Shape Up Somerville coordinator have expanded child health-reform efforts outside school boundaries: extending bike paths, developing safe routes to schools, promoting farmers' markets and developing a sealof- approval program for restaurants offering healthy items. Those restaurants have many young customers, now. "By high school," says Jeanne Irwin, "these kids are used to eating vegetarian chili, wholegrain- crust pizza, corn-and-bean salad, chickpeas and other things that most kids would not want to try."
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in Fair Oaks, Calif.