Somerville, Mass.

Community is among 50 sites making changes in national initiative to prevent obesity.

    • December 2, 2008

Somerville is a small but densely populated city immediately abutting Boston. It has both an urban and suburban feel: per-capita income below the state average and increasing numbers of families living in poverty, balanced by vibrant neighborhoods, well-maintained sidewalks and many parks and playgrounds.

For much of a decade, the predominantly White city of 77,000 has been at the forefront with initiatives promoting healthy eating and active living. These have been propelled by an engaged community, a highly supportive mayor and many public and private partners. Somerville continues to receive national attention for its efforts to combat obesity and to advance a healthy lifestyle.

Under Mayor Joseph Curtatone’s leadership, the city has worked with Tufts University to create and maintain the Shape Up Somerville project, a campaign to improve access to affordable healthy foods and to increase opportunities for physical activity. Officials plan to use funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities to expand Shape Up Somerville to promote environmental and policy changes across public health, planning, parks and recreation, education, active transportation, community development and social services.

The young people and families at highest risk for obesity are the foremost intended beneficiaries. Somerville’s rate of childhood obesity and overweight is about 47 percent.

Activities proposed as part of the campaign’s new phase include recruiting older youth to help lead special “Walk/Ride Days” with younger students, promoting “doggy bag options” at participating restaurants and training a “green team” to inventory local playgrounds for safety and design.

Yet even in Somerville, which is far ahead of so many communities, mayoral aide Jessie Baker still wonders about the cultural change its partnership’s work is trying to achieve. “How do we change zoning?” asked Baker, who headed project planning. “How do we change the thinking around transportation to encourage healthy eating, and how do we change the decisions that officials make?” And, just as importantly, “how do we fully engage our community so this is not solely a top-down initiative?”

These aren’t questions simply for the here and now, she knows: “The challenge will be to think this out for the long term and figure how to sustain the culture change in the years and decades ahead.”

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