Shape Up Somerville Helps Community Stay Healthy
Many a school bus has been filled with chants of, “A Pizza Hut! A Pizza Hut! Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut!” This catchy elementary school standard may seem harmless. But as Morgan Spurlock showed in his 2004 documentary, Super Size Me unhealthy food industries have mastered the art of reaching young minds far past the realm of campfire songs. While watching the film, one cannot help but cringe as school children stare perplexed when Spurlock holds up pictures of George Washington and Jesus, but immediately clamor in recognition when shown the likes of Wendy and Ronald McDonald.
But the city of Somerville and Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy have shown that a united and enthusiastic community can help children and adults make better and more informed nutritional choices. The “Shape Up Somerville” initiative, initially aimed at first- through third-graders, has grown to help offer community members of all ages options for healthier living.
Shape Up Somerville began as a three-year study that took place from 2002 to 2005, according to Elizabeth Nahar, who works with Dr. Christina Economos, the leader of the Shape Up team at the Friedman School. “It was an attempt to look at childhood obesity prevention from the community perspective . . . can we work with one community and try to effect change at every point in a child’s day to prevent excess weight gain?” said Nahar.
Shape Up Somerville has changed the daily lives of young students, starting with making their walk to school safer. “There was work done with the city on how to make the city more walkable, including crosswalk paint, more clear signage on one-way streets, things that would make parents more comfortable letting their kids walk to and from school,” Nahar said.
The initiative also worked with school food services to improve the quality and quantity of healthy eating options. “There were a lot of changes in the food services department in the school system in Somerville, changes towards more consumption of fruits and vegetables and less offerings of foods that were higher-fat and sodium and higher calorie options,” Nahar explained. Food service staff received new equipment and training, and new vegetarian recipes were developed. Ice cream was limited to one day per week, while fresh fruit and salads were put out every day. Each week, a fruit or vegetable was highlighted that students could taste-test and then vote on whether they wanted the item included in the monthly menu. In addition, kids participated in a new classroom-based health curriculum called the HEAT (Healthy Eating and Active Time) Club, which took place both in their classes and with a variety of after-school opportunities like dance, yoga, and soccer.
Shape Up Somerville’s restaurant campaign helped families eat more healthfully on nights out. 21 restaurants were “Shape Up-Approved” in 2005. These establishments agreed to offer dishes in a smaller portion size, fruits and vegetables as side dishes, and visibly highlight healthier menu options.
Tufts students, from both the undergraduate school and the graduate school of nutrition, played an active role in the Shape Up initiative. Students assisted with data collection and entry, as well as community events, such as the Shape Up Somerville 5K race.
The first year of the initiative yielded rewarding results. The study found that after eight months, eight-year-old children in Somerville had gained an average of one pound fewer than in the two control communities. “The thing to remember about that is kids are always gaining weight, they need to, they’re growing,” said Nahar. “And when kids start gaining the excess weight, it’s because they’re gaining more weight than they should in connection with how much they’re actually growing; so if you can prevent some of that excess weight gain, even, you know, a little less than a pound, then over a ten-year period that can really make a huge difference.” The results for the second year have not yet been published.
Nahar said that Shape Up Somerville was groundbreaking in its attention to research and focus on the community. “What’s unique about the Shape Up Somerville study is that it was the first sort of rigorous, scientific study of a community-wide, community-based approach. Not just an intervention in a school, or just an intervention in a hospital, but really community-wide,” she said.
After the actual study of Shape Up ended, work has continued in the town, with Tufts acting as a community partner. Shape Up now focuses on adults as well as children in the community. Nahar said that the messages of success from Shape Up Somerville have reached other communities as well. “It definitely had a lot of influence on a lot of different communities,” she said. “We get calls all the time from people who ask how we’re doing it.”
Even amidst daunting childhood obesity statistics, Somerville can take pride in its success story.