ARTICLE FROM CHICAGO TRIBUNE 7/6/03
The threat of legal action by anti-obesity lawyers and activists clearly
is emerging as a major health news story of 2003. But quietly and with barely
a media ripple, another approach to the problem of being overweight is unfolding:
getting children to walk to school.
First, the "calories in" part of the equation.
Last week, Kraft Foods Inc. announced that it will cut portion sizes of some
products and stop marketing in schools starting in 2004, with a full exit
during the course of three years.
Let's agree that the local food giant can start with Lunchables, the kids
convenience food that symbolizes everything that has gone wrong with children's
lunches. Then not stop there. Portion control is a supersized problem.
Kraft's decision to pull out of schools is both encouraging and a shrewd
step toward damage control. The Northfield-based food giant said it will
no longer sponsor scoreboards or provide free samples, plus it will come
up with new guidelines to avoid putting its products in vending machines
available to students (but apparently in full view of teachers and other
Kraft spokesman Michael Mudd said the changes are the "right thing to do."
He added, "it's fine with us" if the moves "discourage a plaintiff's attorney
or unfair legislation."
Mudd estimated that there are some 200 pieces of potential legislation at
the state level. The message is vivid: If the lawsuits don't get you, new
anti-obesity laws likely will.
Lots of public school systems are not waiting on the anti-obesity lobby to
crowd their lunchrooms. In late June, New York City's school system said
it would be removing candy, soda and sweets from school vending machines.
The Los Angeles School Board voted out soft drinks
earlier this year. Seattle school officials met
on the same matter last week to decide on contract renewal with Coca-Cola
that provides exclusive access for the soft-drink maker in exchange for a
Of course, we all know that what kids drink (more water is the single-best
change) and eat represents only half of the "calories in, calories out" equation.
Being physically active is the other chunk.In that vein, the Chicago Community
Trust granted $200,000 late last month to a local coalition led by Children's
Memorial Hospital that will explore a positive, long-term solution to obesity:
finding safe ways for kids to be more active by walking to their schools.
"There are two categories of exercise," said Dr. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel,
interim director of the Smith Child Health Research Program at Children's
Memorial Institute for Education and Research in Chicago. As a pediatrician,
she has worked with overweight kids for 20 years.
"One is lifestyle exercise, such as walking or riding a bike to school or
work, running errands and housekeeping. Then there are bouts of exercise,
such as playing games or going to the gym for a workout.
"Over a lifespan, the exercise you maintain is lifestyle exercise."
Christoffel is leading the TASK (Transportation that is Active and Safe for
Kids) project that received the Chicago Community Trust grant. During the
next two school years, the TASK group (including researchers, school officials,
urban-planning activists and parent coordinators) will figure out customized
"modules" to encourage walking or riding a bike to school.
The four neighborhoods are Auburn, Uptown, West Garfield Park/Humboldt Park
and West Town. The Catholic schools are the St. Ita campus of the Northside
Catholic Academy, Our Lady of Westside, St. Mark School, St. Bede the Venerable,
plus Dawes, Delano, Goody and Von Humboldt public elementary schools.
Some of the ideas: creating a "walking school bus" in which parents take
turns walking neighborhood kids to school; motivating parents to walk their
kids to school with the promise of a breakfast social meeting or adult exercise
class; coordinating with local merchants so that kids walking to and from
school are presented with healthy snack choices; educating parents and kids
on the best clothing and gear for Chicago's weather extremes.
What's more, the TASK project will address the challenging issues of traffic
and crime in city and suburban neighborhoods (more next Sunday).
For her part, Christoffel is living the experiment. She moved to Lincoln
Park last summer for a complete "walking lifestyle."
She said she firmly believes the 15 minutes she walks each way to work is
good for her health. She has learned how to bundle up properly in January
and mop her brow with a handy handkerchief in July.
"My goal was to walk to work all of the time," she said. "I succeeded. I
live in a place where if I drove the three-quarters of mile, I likely wouldn't
find a parking space any closer than my home anyway."