Posted February 18, 2010

Childhood obesity work moves from the clinic to the White House

Earlier this month, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let's Move” initiative, which focuses on improving the health and fitness of children across the country, to try to cut down on the staggering rates of childhood obesity. A crucial facet of her plan — access to healthy foods in underserved communities — is what brought the First Lady to Philadelphia on Feb. 19, to tour the new Fresh Grocer supermarket at Broad and Oxford streets, and also to talk to local school children about how they choose healthy snacks.

Improving access to healthier food options is something that Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education, and his research team have been studying since Foster’s arrival at Temple in 2006.

They first started in the schools. In spring 2008, a study led by CORE and The Food Trust found that by replacing snacks in local schools with healthier options such as water, 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat milk, fresh fruit and low- calorie snacks, the rate of obesity in children from the underserved areas surrounding the schools was reduced by half.

Next, they moved into the neighborhoods. In fall 2009, CORE and The Food Trust produced another study that highlighted the need for neighborhood corner stores to offer more healthy options. These stores were frequent stops for elementary students going to and from school, the researchers said, and as a result, the children tended to pick up almost 360 extra empty calories per day.

Between January and June 2008, the researchers looked at more than 800 purchases made by students in grades 4-6 at 10 Philadelphia schools who frequented one of 24 area corner stores before and after school. During each visit, children spent about $1.07, and most frequently bought chips, candy and sugar-sweetened beverages. Calories from each purchase came mainly from carbohydrates (65.6%), followed by fat (29.2%), and protein (5.2%).

“Students are stopping at these stores sometimes twice a day, every day,” said Kelley Borradaile, an assistant research professor of public health at CORE and lead author of that study. “It is important for us to be aware of students’ snack preferences, so that we may substitute healthier options in the future,” she said.

For example, the study authors said switching from regular chips to the baked variety would reduce calorie intake by about 14 percent, and replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water would reduce calorie intake by about 60 calories per purchase.

With many underserved areas lacking a large supermarket that would offer healthier options than local corner stores, Foster and his team said it becomes imperative to find alternate ways for children to get access to healthy foods.

“The increasing prevalence and serious consequences of childhood obesity have pushed us to find solutions that go beyond the clinic and reach greater numbers of children,” he said.