While childhood obesity statistics soar nationwide, Californians say they have had enough: 92 percent recently indicated they view it as a serious problem, 80 percent thought it had worsened, and most thought the solution requires a community approach, not just an individual one.
Enter Healthy Eating, Active Communities (HEAC). HEAC is a four-year, $26-million initiative created and funded by the California Endowment. It focuses on fighting childhood obesity in the golden state, as organizations promote increased physical activity and healthy eating for children and rural and low-income families.
The California Endowment is a private foundation dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles in an environment where diversity is strength, medical problems are promptly addressed and prevention is a common goal. It was created in 1996 to work with local groups who have strong ties to the community to promote and support healthy living through funding, policy and advocacy.
With emphasis on a multicultural approach to health, the Endowment is also working to end health disparities among minorities by funding programs, such as HEAC, that educate people about modifying unhealthy behaviors and changing the environment that leads to the unhealthy behaviors.
Funds were given to school districts, public health departments and existing community groups to address the issue of childhood obesity and contributing environmental factors. One of the six recipients was the South Bay Partnership (SBP), an organization originally started in 1997 through a grant to work in alcohol and drug prevention in Southern California. Comprised of several organizations in the southern region of California, the organization now serves more than 400,000 individuals.
"Everyone has been really receptive of this idea of creating healthy communities," said Tanya Rovira-Osterwalder, HEAC project coordinator for the Chula Vista site, which was chosen by South Bay as the project site.
Entering its third year, Chula Vista encompasses assistance from a number of agencies with the goal of creating policies to bring about healthy changes. The health department, health and human services, school districts, city and county and numerous local organizations have become involved.
Policies have turned into action as things have moved surprisingly fast, said Dr. Thomas Herman, also an evaluation consultant for the SBP."It's really been a snowball process with HEAC at the center of the snowball," Dr. Herman said.
Recent policy changes introduced healthy options to vending machines and school menus, while removing food and advertisements for unhealthy options.
"In terms of the kids, there was a little bit of resistance," Rovira-Osterwalder said. "But it's kind of like the tipping point. You pass the policy and people have to come aboard," she added.
Herman gives credit to receptive politicians, the strong reputation of the SBP and other organizations' willingness to use their grant money to engage in the fight against obesity.
"There's a lot of combining and maximizing of resources," he said. "People know and appreciate the work of the South Bay Partnership. So anytime they do get a grant, they come to us. It's nice when we throw out these ideas, but it's even nicer when people pick them up," Herman said.
Chula Vista residents have also seen changes in the city landscape after an empty lot was converted into a park that has surpassed abandoned trolley tracks as a popular hangout. The park was the first one constructed in the last 25 years and was designed by children. It has a mini skate park and basketball courts, which Rovira-Osterwalder said are used well into the evenings by families.
"It just blows my mind to see so many people there playing basketball," she said. "Before the park, where did they go?"
With several successes under their belts, they are now trying to expand healthy eating policies into after-school programs, ensuring that all programs have physical components, and encourage physicians and healthcare workers to become advocates for childhood obesity and mentors to young people who may have interest in the field.
Thus far, a toolkit has been created with educational materials such as a body mass index wheel and culture-specific information. Doctors have even started writing prescriptions to patients for programs at Parks and Recreation, which allows them to attend for free.
"This is what you have to remember: What's the impact we want to have and what's the best way to do it," Herman said. "There's a lot more to accomplish and it takes everyone working together to keep this going."
Fia Curley is a writer for the OMHRC. Comments? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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