Washington, D.C.

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

    • December 2, 2008

The Anacostia River cuts languidly through the nation’s capital—and divides the city’s poorest neighborhoods from the rest of Washington. East of the river are predominantly African-American neighborhoods with rates of childhood overweight and obesity approaching or exceeding 50 percent. These also are the communities with the highest poverty and crime rates, which too often limit residents’ use of the parks and other green space in their midst.

But with funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, a partnership led by the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education (SHIRE) plans to change some of those statistics. The effort will hone in on the most underserved parts of Washington, where it will work with residents to select two of the following policy-focused actions:

  • Institute the federal Afterschool Supper Program to provide low-income children with healthy suppers;
  • Create a “saturation index” of unhealthy food and beverage outlets within a community and help residents to identify the types and quantities of healthy vendors that should be there instead;
  • Increase the safety and accessibility of local parks and playgrounds through policies that create a “park keepers” workforce; and
  • Advocate policies through which insurers would reimburse community-based fitness and healthy living programs.

SHIRE will be building on its past leadership on the childhood obesity epidemic. In 2006, it convened an Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Collaborative with funding from Kaiser Permanente and the following year launched adult and student peer educators on healthy behaviors and a health care outreach program for at-risk children. Partners on this newest initiative include the city Department of Health and Office of Planning, DC Hunger Solutions, Greater Washington Urban League and National Black Child Development Institute.

Community awareness of the epidemic hasn’t quite reached the tipping point in the targeted neighborhoods, project director Ruth Perot says—but close.

“There’s been a lot of ground cultivated on this issue, and it’s increasingly a subject at the grassroots level,” she said. It’s discussed at neighborhood meetings, in the local black press and by ministers.

“We’re very encouraged by the response we’re getting,” Perot said. “We do need an aroused and concerned and involved community. This is a long, intense process.”

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