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Safer neighborhoods can lead to leaner bodies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: With its two-story brick and siding homes, black metal mail boxes on the lawns, and sturdy sidewalks out front, the quiet stretch of St. Ferdinand, west of North Vandeventer, looks more like a slice of suburbia than a piece of north St. Louis. In a part of town where the quiet of some neighborhoods is interrupted by occasional gunfire, this street offers a safe haven for youngsters like Derriyon Hobbs.

A chubby kid with a ready smile, Hobbs often spent his summer days pedaling his bike up and down St. Ferdinand without the watchful eye of his mother, Sherita Calvin. Both are grateful to have come to a neighborhood where people walk at their leisure rather than at their peril.

"I used to live on a very busy part of North Kingshighway," Calvin says. "It was in a bad crime neighborhood. During the day we weren't able to sit outside or take a walk because we were afraid someone would try to mug us, hurt us. We were afraid to walk even to the corner store. Now I can not only walk to the corner but walk three or four blocks."

That amount of walking is making a big difference to a mom and son for whom the big-screen television in the family living room used to be the equivalent of an after-dinner companion.

"We used to eat every evening and then just sit on the couch and watch television," Calvin says of the days when meals meant foods heavy on fat and sugar.

"I knew they were bad for me, but it was a habit that I had," she says.

Obesity is Not Just a Family Matter

Like some other kids exposed to fatty and sugary foods, Derriyon, an 8-year-old third grader at a charter school, is a bit flabby around the waist. He weighed 114 pounds, and he was struggling to drop to a double-digit number.

Obesity among children used to be regarded as a private family matter rather than a social issue. At least one in every five Missouri children between the ages of 5 and 11 is estimated to be overweight. While the problem is common across racial lines, research shows that geography can play a role. Overweight children tend to be more common in communities with fewer full-service grocery stores, fewer safe and well-maintained parks that encourage physical activity, and fewer sidewalks on which children like Derriyon can exercise indirectly by riding their bikes and skateboards.

Though some argue that parents must bear the responsibility for the health of their children, the fact is that every Missourian already is footing the bill for obesity among all age groups. About five years ago, the state reported that $1.6 billion was being spent annually on obesity-attributed medical expenses, such as treating diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and certain types of cancer. Put another way, the state and the nation could save billions of dollars by controlling obesity because it causes or aggravates many illnesses.

"Our health-care costs have grown along with our waist lines," said Jeff Levi, executive director of Trust for America's Health.

That's why youngsters like Derriyon get more pep talks about obesity from many sources, including First Lady Michelle Obama. In addition, many public health workers are at work on projects tackling childhood obesity.

One is a free Washington University program called COMPASS. That's an acronym for Comprehensive Maintenance Program to Achieve Sustained Success. It seeks to reduce childhood obesity by working with children like Derriyon and their parents. Both a child and at least one parent must be overweight to take part in the one-year COMPASS program. Because Calvin, 40, is overweight, she has joined her son as a COMPASS participant.

Focusing on Exercise and Healthy Choices

Instead of relying on medicine, COMPASS focuses on helping enrollees learn to incorporate exercise into daily routines and to eat healthier meals. Dorothy J. Van Buren, an assistant research professor at Washington University, says COMPASS requires one or both parents to participate with their overweight youngster because adults can be the key to helping children shed pounds. By learning to make healthy food choices for themselves, parents can indirectly influence the behavior of their youngsters, she says.

"Parents are the gatekeeper for healthy behavior at home," Van Buren says. "It's much easier to help children who are overweight if their parents are involved."

Hobbs says the family still eats many of the same foods but that the program has taught her to bake meats to reduce the fat, use salt substitutes and coat her cooking pans with a spray rather than oil.

Derriyon initially had doubts when his mother encouraged him to enroll in COMPASS.

"I was afraid I wouldn't lose weight because I was in the habit of eating junk food," he says.

Calvin says she now sees a big difference in her son's physical activity level.

"I'm very proud of him for sticking to this program. He was kind of leery about being in a program where people tell him what he can and can't eat. The big difference I see in him now is that I don't have to make him ride his bike or exercise. He just does it."

As tough as losing weight might be, helping kids keep the pounds off can be even more challenging, Van Buren concedes. She notes that people who lose weight tend to regain it within a year. But she says COMPASS gives participants access to health specialists who offer individual plans that help families work on both eating habits and physical activity.

Missouri is in the Middle of the Obesity Pack

In spite of many efforts to attack and control diabetes, 31 percent of Missouri youngsters in the 10-17 category are overweight, according to a report last year by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The number means Missouri ranked 23rd nationally in overweight youngsters.

Mississippi had the highest rate of adult obesity at 32.5 percent, making it the fifth year in a row that the state topped the list.

Whatever its ranking, St. Louis or the state can't afford to wait to tackle obesity by changing the built environment, says Althea Albert-Santiago, food service director for St. Louis Public Schools. She notes that meals served at schools are the only chance some youngsters have to consume a balanced diet. That fact, she says, is among reasons the district is doing more to scrap certain foods, such as fried chicken and French fries, in favor of baked items. Schools now offer whole-wheat pizzas, along with fresh fruits and green and orange vegetables several times a week. In addition, she says the district has collaborated with other groups to bring in chefs and celebrities, including pro athletes, to talk about health and show them how to prepare snacks simple enough for them to make at home.

"Hopefully," she says, "they won't grow up and become obese because they have been taught at the ground level about the need for eating healthy meals."

This story was written with the assistance of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, which is administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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