Fitchburg is set in the shadow of bustling Boston to the east and the magnificent Mohawk Trail to the west. Fitchburg cannot claim either of those attributes. The north-central Massachusetts city of 40,000 has been struggling since its paper industry collapsed and then disappeared in the 1970s.
Jobs in Fitchburg have plummeted by more than 60 percent in the past two years, single-parent families now account for 40 percent of the population, and 21 percent of children live in poverty. Residents’ health also has suffered during the city’s troubles, with more than 80 percent of Fitchburg’s predominantly White residents overweight or obese. The almost dozen fast-food restaurants lining the main road into town don’t help the situation.
Despite these challenges, Fitchburg has some positives going for it. The mayor is making healthy living a community priority, local lawmakers are focused on improving the region’s quality of life, and a strong network of collaborators that have been innovative on other issues is now mobilized to address obesity. Two new farmers' markets opened this past summer, and residents need look no further for easy fitness than the markers stenciled on downtown sidewalks for a one-mile walking loop from City Hall.
“We are really a small town where everyone knows one another, but we face challenges similar to a big city,” project director Mary Giannetti said. “We have a lot of pieces in place, but now we need to pull all of the segments together. Changes that have been made so far have been a result of the community coming together.”
The regional community action agency Montachusett Opportunity Council will use its Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities funding to expand a high-profile city program, Fun ’n FITchburg, in partnership with the state health department, Fitchburg Farmers Market Association and others.
The new initiative, dubbed Fun ’n Fit–Healthy Kids, Healthy FITchburg, will use the “5P” strategies to achieve results in addressing youth obesity and overweight through healthy eating and active living:
- Preparation—GIS (geographic information system) mapping will assess Fitchburg’s current nutrition and physical activity environment.
- Policy—Community members will be trained on how to advocate for key environmental and policy changes with local and state policy-makers, and policy priorities will be developed.
- Promotion—Advertising campaigns will seek to increase community knowledge of, and engagement in, healthy eating and active living issues.
- Programs—New programs will encourage healthier food choices, especially fresh produce; draw youngsters into intramural and other activities; set up a farmers' market with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) machines for lower-income shoppers; and assist park concession stands and restaurants in identifying and serving more nutritional food.
- Physical Projects—Community gardens, playgrounds and multi-use trails will be constructed in at-risk neighborhoods.
“We have a lot of diverse partners who understand the connection between a healthy community and a healthy child. The partnership is committed to changing the environment in Fitchburg,” Giannetti said.