Attacking an Epidemic From All Sides: One City's Success Story

Too often when we talk about this nation's obesity crisis, we talk about it as an overwhelming, seemingly unsolvable problem. With one in three American children overweight or obese, the issue is an urgent one, but as one American city is showing us, a solution is possible.

A study published this week in Preventing Chronic Disease shows that Philadelphia may have found the key to solving this national issue: The city has significantly reduced the rate of obesity among Philadelphia schoolchildren.

The study, authored by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, shows that rates of obesity among Philadelphia school children decreased by 5 percent between 2006 and 2010. It shows even larger declines in obesity rates among African-American boys and Hispanic girls, the largest documented to date, and a critical finding, as African-Americans and Hispanics are more at risk to become obese.

This news means that Philadelphia children will lead healthier lives -- and that all those across the country engaged in multiple strategies to reverse our dangerous and expensive obesity problem are on the right track.

Notably, the study doesn't credit one program or policy as the hero of this success story. Instead, it suggests that Philadelphia's comprehensive approach to obesity prevention -- a combination of increased access to healthy food, nutrition education and exercise -- may be responsible for the reversing the obesity trend.

Since 1999, Philadelphia has participated in the federal SNAP-Ed program, which provides nutrition education programming in schools, to encourage children to eat healthier foods and understand nutrition. In 2004, the school district's leadership voted to implement strong healthy vending machine standards.

Under the leadership of Mayor Michael Nutter, Philadelphia enacted new policies that support healthier eating and increased physical activity, such as a menu labeling law for fast food restaurants and Complete Streets, which makes it easier for residents to commute by bike or on foot.

And in 2004, thanks to the leadership of Pennsylvania State Rep. Dwight Evans, new financing was made available to grocers willing to open their doors in lower-income neighborhoods through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative.

This study proves what we've believed all along: that a comprehensive approach is needed to address the complex problem of obesity. Nationally, we are building more groceries in lower-income neighborhoods, ensuring that nearly a million kids in childcare settings are being provided healthy snacks and physical activity, and encouraging national chains to reduce calories and fat.

We are bringing together government and the private sector to attack the issue from every angle, and that is a key reason why we are beginning to see progress.

Of course, a 5 percent decrease in obesity rates does not mean the obesity epidemic is over -- not even close. The problem has grown over several decades, and it will take vigilance and continued efforts to ensure that obesity rates continue to decline.

For years, the country has been looking for the solution to the obesity epidemic, a single answer to a complex problem. Philadelphia's declining obesity rate suggests that the multiple strategies of The Food Trust in Philadelphia and national efforts like Let's Move! and the Partnership for a Healthier America, and the thousands of others working on this issue, are the right one. That there is not one solution, but many -- a comprehensive approach that fits the community and creates real and sustainable progress toward a healthier future for all our children.

For more by Yael Lehmann, click here.

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