A National Model for Curbing Childhood Obesity

A Massachusetts town's award-winning program that puts healthy choices at the heart of its planning efforts has been mirrored by others around the country.

When nearly half of your elementary school student population is either overweight or at risk of becoming obese, you have a serious problem. In 2002, a Tufts University study found that 46 percent of first- through third-graders in the Boston suburb of Somerville, a working-class city of 75,000, were at risk of becoming or were obese, a chronic illness that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.

Rather than try to mandate certain behavioral changes, a group of community leaders decided to motivate change by creating a citywide campaign to slow down and reverse the weight epidemic. The result: Shape Up Somerville, a program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the program, the city replaced fatty foods and sweets in the school lunch program with more healthy choices, added bike lanes for more exercise, encouraged local restaurants to offer more healthful foods on menus and promoted community gardens.

“We saw this as an opportunity to improve people’s quality of life,” says Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone. “If we can improve their wellness and make this a healthy place to live, to work, to play, we’re going to be a more productive community, and people will want to invest and locate their businesses here.”

After a year, positive results were apparent: Schoolchildren gained 15 percent less weight than the peer average, and twice as many people were riding bikes than in the past, according to USA Today, which profiled the program in 2009.

This year, the John F. Kennedy School of Government picked Shape Up Somerville as one of the Top 25 programs in its Innovations in American Government Awards.

Since the program began, a number of cities nationwide have followed suit, with Somerville helping to get their citywide programs off the ground. The keys to success, according to city officials, lay in a handful of principles:

Challenge people rather than create a public mandate. “You can’t accomplish what we’ve accomplished, and what we will accomplish, simply by mandating that trans fats can’t be served in restaurants -- or any other promulgation of health policy, rules or regulations,” Curtatone says. “You have to motivate people’s hearts and minds.”

Involve constituents to gain buy-in. According to Program Coordinator Nicole Rioles, community members and partners assist in molding the work the team does. “Once the community’s engaged and helps shape the policy, behavior follows,” she says. The initiative has a steering committee of about 40 to 45 organizational members who contribute to the city’s 20-year master planning process.

Take a community-based and environmental approach. People tackle the health issue from different perspectives, according to Rioles. Some people view it as a quality of life issue, while others see a sustainable and cleaner environment as key to a healthier community and local economy. “That’s why we have such broad support,” she says, “because the work we do stretches across all different sectors, paradigms and values.”

Create solid partnerships. The Somerville project consists of more than 40 stakeholders, including government agencies, social services agencies, academia and the business community. “We have economic development partners as well because of the intersections between supporting our local economies, local food economies, walkability,” says Program Director Jaime Corliss.

Rooting out failed policies isn’t easy. Shape Up Somerville affects every policy decision in the city, such as how street networks are developed, potential alternate forms of transportation, and land use and planning. “Anything and everything we do, all these policies have a consequence on our quality of life, which is why we bridge it across our entire life,” he says. “Obesity is not the problem. It’s a consequence of a collision of failed policies over time.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.