Health campaign enters second year with new billboards

Massachusetts – Nearly a year ago, the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation put the national childhood obesity epidemic front and center in the region, with a series of controversial billboards.

This year, foundation president Martin Cohen said they aim to keep it there.

In the last month, the foundation erected a new series of billboards aimed largely at getting parents to think about the nutritional choices they make for their children, and published a report on their anti-obesity campaign detailing the work that has been done, and still is being done in the MetroWest and Milford regions.

PDF: Read the report

“We thought it was time to let people know the issue hasn’t gone away,” Cohen said this week.

The newest billboards will be up in various spots around MetroWest for five weeks, with the hope of getting parents and children to visit the foundation’s Web site.

“Our approach has always been to get parents’ attention,” Cohen said. “We think parents are really the ones who can make a difference here, because they control probably about 80 percent of what kids eat, between meal preparation and grocery shopping.

“(The billboards) are really designed to say to parents, ‘This is really something you’ve got to pay attention to, because it’s about the long-term health of your kids.”

“The campaign is trying to change a thought pattern,” said Janet Schwartz, chairwoman of Framingham State College’s Department of Consumer Science and a professor of food nutrition.

The department received a grant from the foundation to provide nutrition assistance to any agency that receives a grant through the childhood obesity campaign.

While she believes the foundation’s campaign has had an effect – “I love those billboards,”she said – Schwartz knows the battle against obesity won’t be won overnight.

“People are very busy,” she said. “The food environment (now) is horrible. The kids are asking for this stuff, and it’s easy to eat things that are high in fat and high in sugar. Then you’re asking parents to fight that.”

Some, though, are winning that battle, Cohen said.

“At least from the grants we’re funding, we’re starting to see results,” he said.

Of the 106 children who took part in a program sponsored by the Framingham Parks and Recreation Department, he said 80 percent saw a change in their body mass index.

Other programs offer children the chance to take part in activities like tai chi, show-shoeing and cross-country skiing have proven popular, Cohen said.

“These are things these kids never knew they could do, but it’s getting them excited, and it’s getting them moving,” he said.

But while the foundation has spent more than a million on grants and advertising for the campaign, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what advertisers spend convincing consumers to buy their products.

For a new frozen bagel product that’s still in production, Schwartz said Kraft Foods is expected to spend as much as $16 million on advertising alone.

“That’s what we’re fighting against,” she said. “I think we are reaching people,but what I say about this is that to change a child’s weight, the food environment has to change organically. It (has to be) part of how you live, not something you do.”

Making fitness and healthy eating habits part of children’s lives is the aim of Foundations for Health and Fitness, a three-year program at Millis Middle School funded by a foundation grant.

Armed with the grant, Millis Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said the school hired a fitness teacher who launched a program to help students get into shape.

The program is not a substitute for gym class, he said, but an intensive, 90-day program that gets students to work out for at least 45 minutes a day, every school day.

“It’s basically centered on improving students’ cardio-vascular health, strength and teaching them what a healthy lifestyle is all about,” Sanchioni said.”Very little of it is classroom instruction. Basically, we’re working these kids out.”

Before the program starts, every student’s body mass index and resting heart rate is recorded. Atthe end of the program, the tests are redone, and the results are often dramatic.

“Last year,every kid in the program improved in at least one area,” Sanchioni said.

The program was even studied by a Harvard researcher, whose research suggests better health can translate into better classroom performance.

“We’re making the connection,” Sanchioni said. “Not only are the kids getting thinner, we’re reducing the obesity rate, but the kids are getting smarter – that’s a win-win for everybody.”

While Sanchioni has become one of the program’s biggest boosters, he admitted it wouldn’t have happened without the foundation’s funding.

“This doesn’t happen without the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation,” he said.”They provided us with a three-year grant. We’re going into the third year, and as superintendent, this program is so successful, I’m going to find away to fund it. I’ve been just amazed with the results we’re getting from it.”

Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at [email protected]

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