If doctors announced that nearly a fifth of our nation's children were exhibiting signs of, say, typhoid, there'd be panic on Main Street. But for the past 10 years, public-health officials have been warning of another problem every bit as life-threatening and even more difficult to treat: childhood obesity. By now the statistics come as no surprise. Fifteen percent of children--9 million kids--are seriously overweight, a rate that has tripled since 1970. These kids are on the fast track for adult cripplers like heart disease, stroke and diabetes. And not all the problems are physical. In a recent study pediatricians reported that severely obese adolescents felt slightly more social isolation than teenage cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
What can be done about our nation of chubby kids? Once kids get fat, the odds of losing weight and keeping it off are depressingly small. That's why doctors say that prevention, not treatment, is key. Jim Hill, head of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, says kids must learn to eat right and exercise while they're still young. "Right now we're doing a terrible job of imparting those crucial les-sons." And since children eat what they're served, parents and schools are a critical part of the equation. Here are a few innovative ways communities are fighting the epidemic.
READING, WRITING AND RECESS
SANTA ANA, CALIF.
For many children at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif., after-school hours are spent watching television. Fast food--cheap and convenient in their working-class Latino neighborhood--is the meal of choice. There isn't much chance to burn off all those extra calories because the cash-strapped school eliminated gym class years ago. These days more kids from Roosevelt are on the move. Concerned about the rising rates of obesity among Hispanics--more than 25 percent of black and Hispanic kids are overweight, compared with 15 percent of white kids--a community group called Latino Health Access started the Arriba Health Club at Roosevelt. Every day after --school, 25 kids do calisthenics, play sports, run an obstacle course and learn to eat better by playing Five-A-Day Bingo and watching MTV-style videos about eating smart. The LHA also trains regular classroom teachers to take kids out for recess and launched a morning exercise program for moms in the cafeteria. Teachers say more activity has helped kids stay better focused in class. Maribel Martinez, 28, from Guanajuato, Mexico, joined the morning exercise group, and later her husky first grader enrolled in Arriba. Her motivation: "I want to be a good example."
WHAT WOULD JESUS EAT?
For years, pastor Donald Anthony looked down from his pulpit at the Grace Lutheran Church in North Carolina and worried that members of his flock were bulging right out of their Sunday best. Heart disease, stroke and diabetes plagued the congregation, and Anthony fretted that the children would also be afflicted. He prayed for help. "That's when the realization came that we can control these diseases not with medication but with diet and exercise," Anthony recalls.
With a $500 grant from the state, he established an eight-parishioner "health cabinet" to reform the congregation's eating and exercise habits. They created a cookbook with low-salt, low-fat versions of church-supper staples and persuaded moms to experiment with steaming and baking instead of deep-frying. After Sunday school, veggies and dip replaced chicken wings and cookies. Church ladies still gather for choir practice, but they also meet for group walks and low-impact aerobics. On Sundays, Anthony has begun to preach a new message, and his followers are listening. "Our bodies are gifts that God gave us. We have to take good care of them."
Three days a week, 12-year-old Katie Paul walks along the Old Plank Road Trail, a 21-mile paved pathway that connects eight communities from Joliet, Ill., to Chicago Heights, just south of Chicago. Sometimes Paul jogs, other times she walks her dog; some days she just saunters along, looking for a breeze. She's never alone. The paved pathway is a favorite of bikers, runners, bladers and parents pushing baby strollers. Building a trail was the brainchild of a group of community activists who noticed that their suburban towns were heavy on retail stores--Wal-Mart, Target, OfficeMax and Barnes & Noble--but short on places for children to exercise safely. With a defunct Penn Central railway line attracting vagrants and trash, the group proposed converting the old tracks into a paved trail. Initially some neighborhoods opposed the $6 million plan. "They were most afraid that people could enter their property," says Jerry Ducay, a village administrator in Frankfort, one of the small towns along the trail. But once it was built, the communities embraced it. "We couldn't keep them away," says architect and trail advocate George Bellovics. "People were literally following the paving machines." For Paul, the trail is not about health but about fun. "It's our favorite place to be."
BLOOM WHERE YOU'RE PLANTED
Kids at the Ecology-Technology Academy in inner-city Philadelphia learn to eat better by working the soil. The entire curriculum at the 200-student division of the sprawling University City High School centers on a one-acre plot of land, teeming with fragrant herbs, fresh vegetables and fruit trees. "Most schools send in a nutritionist to explain the food pyramid and then leave," says Martin Galvin, a former social- studies teacher who founded the program. "But a single lecture isn't enough. We try to be more holistic in our approach by cultivating a taste for healthy foods." At Eco-Tech, where every student qualifies for free lunch, science and English teachers hold classes in the garden. Kids take turns planting and cultivating the crops, and they get to taste freshly picked fruits and vegetables, often for the first time. "I never had fresh herbs before," says Johnathan Russell, 16. "It was store-bought all my life. It tastes completely different." During the summer, Eco-Tech teaches kids to cook healthy meals--and invites family members to sample them. Because fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce at neighborhood bodegas and markets, Eco-Tech students harvest and sell their produce inexpensively at a community farm stand. "A large percentage of our students would have eaten three, four, five nights a week at a fast-food restaurant," says Galvin. Eco-Tech is changing that.
FEELING THE BURN
The Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans has all the features of a world-class gym: sleek machines, staff nutritionists and a sound system that pulses hip-hop tunes. It also has separate spaces where obese kids work out. In brightly painted rooms, kids ages 8 to 17 go for the burn on scaled-down weight machines and miniature spinning bikes. Like their adult counterparts, they enjoy the unflagging enthusiasm of a personal trainer. Kids who work out at Elmwood are part of a comprehensive weight-loss program dreamed up by the Ochsner Clinic Foundation's chief pediatrician, Dr. Douglas Moodie, and trainer Michael Heim, who want to give overweight kids the same fun, high-tech environment that many adults use to get in shape. Their 12-week program includes nutritional counseling, cooking classes for parents and weight-training sessions three times a week. Layne Chapman, 14, lost 14 pounds and two dress sizes during her first 12 weeks. "I feel good about myself. I have a lot of energy," says Layne, who is now in her third 12-week session. "It kind of gives you more self-confidence." Perhaps that's the best reason of all to help kids lose weight.