Lake Worth-Greenacres-Palm Springs, Fla.

    • January 11, 2010

Palm Beach boasts sparkling white beaches, beautiful hotels and mansions of some rich and famous. Drive just a few miles south, and it’s no longer a tourist’s postcard world. The affluence and privilege disappears, replaced by the social and health problems of economically compromised communities.

Poverty. Homelessness. Illiteracy. Obesity. They’re all too plentiful within the trio of cities wedged here between the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Turnpike.

It is in Lake Worth, Greenacres and Palm Springs that the School District of Palm Beach County is stepping out with an initiative to promote active living and healthy eating among youth and families. The project springs from the schools’ wellness promotion of recent years. But in partnership with the Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners and the cities themselves, the new effort will be broader and more ambitious, aimed at policy and environmental change on numerous fronts.

Its ultimate goal is to reverse the rate of childhood obesity and overweight, which is 49 percent among local middle school students.

“We’re hoping to put those environmental changes in place in just four years,” said project director Eric Stern. “We have a big challenge ahead of us.”

In the three cities and surrounding vicinity, where the combined population is about 80,000, 25 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level and 70 percent of children receive free or reduced-price school lunches. Three-quarters of students speak a language other than English at home, reflecting a decades-long surge in immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean.

With funding through Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities, the initiative plans to increase access to nutritious foods by establishing farmers' markets selling reasonably priced fruits and vegetables. Palm Beach County produces the majority of winter vegetables sold in the United States, and many of the project’s target families are migrant workers. The low-cost farmers' markets proposed for their neighborhoods will help them provide healthy foods to their own children.

In addition, the school district and its partners will establish gardens at 25 schools. And they’re hoping to convert park or undeveloped land to large community garden plots. These gardens will allow residents and school children to grow their own fruits and vegetables, a move that will lead to increased knowledge about the health benefits of adding fresh produce to daily menus.

The project intends to facilitate joint-use agreements that will allow after-hours use of school recreational facilities and to tout greater use of local biking and walking paths.

The work ahead will require dedication and teamwork from a large group, including local officials and parents of school children. “We have the vision in place and all the partners at the table,” Stern said. “Now it is just a matter of putting the initiative in high gear.”

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