It takes a village to keep kids trim

Published May 17, 2007

SOMERVILLE, Mass. - More fruits and vegetables were added to school lunches. Restaurants offered smaller portions. Crosswalks got a fresh coat of paint to encourage walking and biking.

The whole city of Somerville went on a diet to curb childhood obesity. It worked, researchers say.

Tufts University nutrition experts found public school students in this Boston suburb avoided gaining about a pound of excess weight compared with their 8-year-old counterparts in two nearby communities.

The results of the study were published last week in the journal Obesity. The report covered the first year of the 2003-04 study involving 1, 696 children in first, second and third grades.

If other communities take similar steps, the findings could help children avoid becoming overweight, said Christina Economos, who led the program.

Researchers picked Somerville, a city of 77, 500, because it has a large population of minority children in low-income families. Only 3 percent of the town's land is set aside for children to walk and play safely, a situation that fuels a sedentary lifestyle.

Kids began seeing fresh fruit in school cafeterias. They were told they could eat as much as they wanted. School cooks started using fresh ingredients instead of frozen foods. They also turned to olive and canola oils and replaced fried foods with baked products.

More than 90 teachers were taught a new health curriculum, and the program leaders learned yoga, dance and soccer to encourage children to be more active.

Kayla Brown, 10, feels the difference. "I always got tired when I walked home, " said the fourth-grader, who gave up milk and cookies after school in favor of fruit or carrots and dip. "Since I have been eating more healthier foods at school, I just feel so excited, and I walk home and I never get tired."

Researchers also sent newsletters offering health tips, coupons for healthy foods and updates on the project.

Some businesses supported the effort. Twenty restaurants agreed to offer healthier meals - including low-fat dairy products, smaller portions, and fruits and vegetables as side dishes.