Philadelphia: Signs of Progress Toward Reversing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

City reports 4.7 percent decline in obesity for grades K-12

    • July 8, 2013

In September 2012, Philadelphia reported a significant reduction in the rate of obesity among schoolchildren—particularly among kids and teens of color. Those results set Philadelphia apart, proving that change is possible in areas with traditionally high obesity rates. For more than a decade, the city has been working to address obesity. Philadelphia:

  • provided nutrition education to all public school students whose families are eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since 1999;
  • created new financing methods to attract grocers to open stores in lower-income neighborhoods, beginning in the mid-2000s;
  • removed all sodas and sugar-sweetened drinks from public school vending machines in 2004, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the country to do so;
  • implemented a comprehensive, district-wide school wellness policy in 2006, including guidelines for school meals, snacks, and drinks, physical activity, and nutrition education;
  • banned deep fryers in school kitchens, and switched from serving 2% milk to 1% and skim milk, in 2009; and
  • passed a law, which was implemented in 2010, that required chain restaurants to post calorie information on menus and menu boards.

Progress in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is making strong progress in the fight against childhood obesity. Under the leadership of Mayor Michael A. Nutter, with the support of Get Healthy Philly and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and by working with schools, businesses, and other partners, the city has become a healthier place for children and families. These videos tell the story.

See more RWJF videos

A Focus on Healthy Food in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, rates of obesity among school children fell by nearly 5 percent between 2006 and 2010, during a time when national obesity rates remained unchanged. Perhaps more notable than the overall drop was that the biggest declines were reported for African American boys and Hispanic girls: 7.6 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively.

Philadelphia is the first and only community that has reported such progress among students of color. That’s important, because these groups have historically had some of the highest rates of obesity, putting them at elevated risk for heart disease and other obesity-related conditions.

“We’ve had interventions in schools and communities that have been comprehensive, complementary, and long-standing,” said Giridhar Mallya, MD, MSHP, director of policy and planning at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and co-author of a 2012 study documenting the decrease. Moreover, a wide range of partners across the community have collaborated and supported policies to improve access to healthy foods and increase physical activity, including Mayor Michael Nutter and city agencies; the School District of Philadelphia; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies; the state of Pennsylvania; and community organizations, such as The Food Trust. Efforts in Philadelphia also have been targeted strategically to neighborhoods most in need. 

Beginning in 1999, the district began providing nutrition education to all students whose families were eligible for SNAP. That’s important in a school district where more than half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Today, 80 percent of the 200,000 students in district schools have received nutrition education.

In 2004, the school district banned all sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks from vending machines, and in 2006, set standards for snacks sold in school vending machines and à la carte lines. That same year, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission approved a school wellness policy, which led to an influx of healthier foods, nutrition education, and physical activity in city schools. More recently, Philadelphia schools eliminated deep-cooking fryers and switched from serving 2% milk to 1% and skim milk.      

Outside of schools, Philadelphia is also making big strides in improving residents’ access to healthy foods. “Ten years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find a corner store selling fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Food Trust, which has led the charge for healthy food access in the City of Brotherly Love. Today, there are more than 600 such stores selling fresh produce or other healthier items, such as whole-wheat bread, yogurt, or low-fat milk. And it’s not just corner stores that are bringing healthy foods into underserved neighborhoods. In 2001, Philadelphia had the dubious distinction of having the second-fewest supermarkets of any big city in the nation. Since then, a total of 18 new or renovated groceries have been built or are in the works through the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative—a model for the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

“It’s important to bring supermarkets back into the city,” said Lehmann. Without a supermarket in the neighborhood, many residents depend on corner stores and bodegas for food—and even with the local push to bring healthy items into these smaller stores, many still lack healthy options.         

The city also instituted nutritional labeling for chain restaurant menus and menu boards and banned trans fats in restaurants. More recently, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health launched Get Healthy Philly, a public health initiative bringing together different stakeholders to promote healthy eating, active living, and smoke-free communities.

“Philadelphia shows that childhood obesity is not an intractable problem,” concluded Lehmann. “We can do this. We can reverse the childhood obesity epidemic.”

"Philadelphia Freedom"

The report from Philadelphia is “crucial proof of the concept that communities can reduce obesity rates—and do so in a way that helps to close the disparities gap,” writes Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and James S. Marks, MD, MPH, director of the Foundation’s Health Group.

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Philadelphia by the Numbers

Population: 1,526,006¹

Racial/ethnic makeup: 43.4% Black, 41.0% White, 12.3% Hispanic or Latino, 6.3% Asian¹

Percentage eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 75% in Philadelphia County²

County Health Ranking: Philadelphia County ranked 67 of 67 Pennsylvania Counties³

1. 2010 Census
2. National Center for Education Statistics
3. County Health Rankings

Obesity in Pennsylvania

Adult obesity rate: 29.1%

State rank: 20

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