Fighting Obesity Where It Lives

Beth Fitzgerald | November 2, 2011 | Health Care
Shaping New Jersey wants sidewalks for joggers and stores stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables

According to the state Department of Health, nearly a quarter of New Jerseyans are obese. The obesity rate among low-income children ages two to five is the highest in the nation at 18.4 percent. Obesity is a public health crisis that quadruples the risk of diabetes.

Despite these alarming statistics, obesity remains a stubborn threat.

That’s why the state decided a few years ago to move beyond the “traditional public health model, which is to go out and educate people and try to change their behavior,” said Peri Nearon, director of the DOH office of nutrition and fitness. In 2009 the agency received a $4 million federal grant to launch Shaping New Jersey, which seeks to revamp public policy and reshape the environment to make it easier for individuals to avoid obesity.

Factors that contribute to obesity include neighborhoods without supermarkets to buy fresh fruits and vegetables (so-called food deserts) and those without sidewalks for joggers and walkers. These are the kinds of impediments to a healthy lifestyle that Shaping NJ addresses.

“In the past, obesity prevention efforts have been focused on the individual,” said state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd. “However, education about being physically active and eating healthy is not enough. Residents must have access to recreational facilities and nutritious food where they live, work, learn and play.”

Today has been designated “National Start Eating Healthy Day” by the American Heart Association, and O’Dowd will visit a Shaping NJ partner, the Jewish Renaissance Medical Center in Perth Amboy for a demonstration of healthy nutrition and cooking.

Shaping NJ has enlisted 170 public and private partners, including the Department of Transportation, which launched an initiative to get towns to “design the streets so that you can walk from point A to point B” and the Agriculture Department, which is finding way to get fresh Jersey produce into school lunches, Nearon said. Another initiative is working with hospitals to encourage breastfeeding, thought to reduce a child’s risk of being overweight by 30 percent. And the state is advocating changes in childcare regulations, “to require [caregivers] to follow best practices in nutrition, physical activity and TV viewing,” Nearon said.

Shaping NJ has made grants to 10 cities and counties to work on healthy food and exercise projects: community gardens, bike paths and racks. Supermarkets are scarce or absent in many urban neighborhoods: Shaping NJ is trying to get healthy foods onto the shelves of the small neighborhood grocery stores.

Nearon said Newark Beth Israel Medical Center created a community garden on a vacant lot in Newark and sponsors a farmers’ market. The healthcare system Virtua has a community health center in Camden, where in the warm months there is a farmers’ market once a week.

Barry Ostrowsky, president of Barnabas Health, the parent of Newark Beth Israel, said that in addition to treating illness, his organization wants to promote wellness: “I don’t mean gyms and treadmills, I mean real lifestyle-changing wellness.” He said there are places in Newark that lack access to healthy food “and if we want to have a positive impact on society, we’re going to have to have a conversation about this.”

Several years ago the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute launched the Mayors Wellness Campaign, which signed up 315 towns whose mayors lead projects to encourage good nutrition and exercise. Melissa Kostinas, the director of the campaign, said several mayors competed in a cook-off in Bay Head in early October designed to prove that nutritious foods are easy to prepare and taste good.

Kostinas said nearly every weekend one of the towns is hosting “some kind of an event for the whole family” such as a “get out and get fit” program that gets the community walking.