Monday, May 14, 2007

Shape Up Somerville makes a splash

It can seem impossible for an ordinary parent to improve his or her family's nutrition and physical activity, when every aspect of the outside environment undermines the effort. The Shape Up Somerville program, a collaboration between the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts and the nearby city of Somerville, MA, offers an appealing vision of a whole community working together to change that environment.

Professor Christina Economos (pictured) and her colleagues quite fearlessly tackled a long list of community issues at the same time, in hopes of creating a critical mass of improvements to create a virtuous cycle of family-based and community-based changes.

And this has been quite the month for Shape Up Somerville! After the scholarly research on their first-year outcomes was published in the refereed journal Obesity, the Wall Street Journal ran a long front page story -- complete with one of the Journal's famous dot-matrix illustrations of Economos -- which raved about the program:
The Somerville study is believed to be the first controlled experiment demonstrating the value of a community wide effort. It's only a small dent, but slowing the pace of weight gain among kids is the key to conquering childhood obesity, says lead author Christina Economos, an assistant professor at Tufts University. "It could be the difference between graduating overweight and graduating at a normal weight," she says. "We need to think about how it plays out long term."

The Somerville program, designed primarily by Dr. Economos and fellow researchers at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, offers a surprising blueprint. It didn't force schoolchildren to go on diets. Instead, the goal was to change their environment with small and inexpensive steps. Dr. Economos, a specialist in pediatric nutrition and the mother of two school-age children, has long believed that the battle against obesity can't be fought at the dinner table alone but requires social and political changes.
Motivated by a desire to influence nutrition issues that at first appear to be individual concerns, Economos and her colleagues found themselves deeply involved in policy discussions and even economic debates that they might never have expected at the beginning. One of my favorite stories relates to how their effort to invite active participation by school food service workers required them first to allay the workers' concerns about the labor of processing more fresh vegetables, and that in turn led to a convoluted labor negotiation that ended up working to everybody's satisfaction.

Update: A reader points out: "Those famous portraits in the WSJ are stipple drawings. Specifically, they are referred to as 'hedcuts,' though I just learned that today."

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