Eastern Massachusetts: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Region reports 21.4 percent decline in obesity for children under age 6

    • July 8, 2013

Massachusetts has demonstrated a strong, long-term commitment to preventing and reducing childhood obesity. Recent reports indicate signs of progress—in Eastern Massachusetts, the obesity rate among children under age 6 has declined by 21.4 percent. Some Massachusetts statewide and community-based initiatives include:

  • Mass in Motion, a statewide program promoting opportunities for healthy eating and active living in schools, workplaces, child-care centers, state agencies, and communities;
  • a wellness campaign in Boston, which helped implement a wellness policy for Boston Public Schools, ban sales of sugary drinks on city property, and start campaigns to make neighborhoods more walkable and healthy food more accessible;
  • the Cambridge Healthy Children Task Force, which promotes “5-2-1” guidelines for children through a variety of programs in schools and neighborhoods;
  • Get Fit Gloucester, which promotes walking, bicycling, and improved access to healthy and affordable foods; and
  • Shape Up Somerville, a nationally recognized program that engages a wide range of community partners in an effort to increase daily physical activity and promote healthy eating among Somerville residents. 
Signs of Progress - Somerville, Eastern Massachusetts

Durrell Community Garden in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Shape Up Somerville: A Model for Communities Nationwide

Somerville was one of the first communities in Eastern Massachusetts to implement comprehensive, community-based strategies aimed at preventing obesity. Shape Up Somerville is a campaign devoted to increasing daily physical activity and promoting healthy eating in a culturally diverse city north of Boston.

The effort traces its roots back to 1998, when a group of local health professionals and community advocates began meeting to discuss how to help residents eat healthier and be more active. This task force began building partnerships across many sectors: policy-makers, schools, primary care providers, community-based organizations, researchers, restaurants, and more. In 2002, with a grant from the CDC, to Christina Economos, PhD (an associate professor at Tufts University) and colleagues at Tufts, Shape Up Somerville was hatched as a community-based participatory research project.

With the support of local leaders like Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, this growing coalition of partners has transformed Somerville into what local officials call “a laboratory for community-based obesity prevention” – a city that is teaching the nation what works.  

In 2007, Economos and the Tufts research team published the first-ever study to show that community-based interventions could have a significant impact on children’s weight. Those findings have been supported by subsequent evaluations of Shape Up Somerville, most recently from one published in June 2013.

Some key elements of the program’s approach include:

  • substantial school food service reform that includes healthy snack offerings, more fresh and local fruits and vegetables, staff training, and taste testing and food promotion with students;
  • improving physical education programming and gymnasium equipment in schools, and increasing physical activity programming in after-school programs;
  • launching a healthy restaurant and market program, which included expanding the farmers’ market program by adding two outdoor, two indoor, and four mobile markets, all of which accept nutrition assistance benefits;
  • offering nutrition education in schools and cooking classes during after-school programs;
  • making streets safer and more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians, by adding new bike lanes and traffic-calming measures;
  • introducing recreation programming that encourages physical activity, including an open streets initiative called SomerStreets;
  • adopting a 20-year comprehensive plan that aims to increase residents’ access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity;
  • adding an urban agriculture ordinance designed to create easier access to healthy foods (Somerville was the first community in Massachusetts to do so); and
  • creating a plan to engage Somerville’s substantial Brazilian, Haitian, Hispanic, and immigrant populations in the program’s initiatives.

Economos, who led the design and implementation of the original Shape Up Somerville program from 2002-2005, says none of this would have been possible without the enthusiastic support of the community “People here are hungry for positive change, and they’re eager to be a part of it,” she says.

The importance of community involvement is echoed by Virginia Chomitz, PhD, an assistant professor at Tufts University who works with Shape Up Somerville and led a similar program in nearby Cambridge. “Never diminish the role of champions,” says Chomitz. “Is there a preschool teacher who wants to plant a school garden? A restaurant owner who wants a healthier menu? Parents who want to push for more bike lanes? Work with all of them. It’s so important to partner with people who share our common goals.”

Obesity Rates Drop Among Young Children

Massachusetts is one of 18 states reporting a decline in obesity among preschool children from low-income families.

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Massachusetts by the Numbers

Population: 6,547,629¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 83.7% White, 7.9% African American, 10.1% Hispanic or Latino, 5.8% Asian¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 29.5%²

1. 2010 Census
2. National Center for Education Statistics

Obesity in Massachusetts

Adult obesity rate: 22.9%

State rank: 49

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