Kids in balance

A $5 million gift will help fight childhood obesity

Sue Conway, a third-grade teacher at the Winter Hill Community School in Somerville, Mass., could see that her students were changing. When she would ask, “Who walked to school today?” or “Who thinks they brought a healthy snack?” her pupils would eagerly raise their hands.

The Children in Balance Initiative will take on the childhood obesity epidemic. © Mark Morelli

“You could tell that the children were driving their parents crazy so that at least two days a week they could tell me that they walked,” she said.

And although the children still liked their Doritos, more and more the snacks they brought turned to things like yogurt and fruit, healthful foods they had “taste-tested” in school. After one class session on tropical fruits, Conway said, “I had one little girl who, honestly, for two weeks straight, brought in kiwi for snacks.”

These are the sure signs of a Shape Up Somerville classroom. The Tufts intervention program has taught 1,000 children the way to healthy eating habits and increased physical activity at school and at home. Through programs like this, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy already has shown that it is committed to seeking real solutions to the serious health problem of childhood obesity. About 15 percent of American children ages 6 to 19 are overweight, a number that has tripled since 1974, and another 15 percent are in danger of becoming overweight. The value of community interventions was underscored last fall, when the Institute of Medicine released a sweeping report on childhood obesity that called, in part, for schools to reform their menus and reinvigorate physical education programs.

To children’s health
Shape Up Somerville is just a taste of things to come. With a gift of $5 million over the next 10 years, the New Balance Foundation, the charitable arm of the New Balance athletic shoe company, has partnered with the Friedman School to create a far-reaching initiative to combat childhood obesity and improve the long-term health of future generations.

The Children in Balance Initiative will provide for an endowed professorship—the New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition—along with endowed and dedicated graduate student fellowships. The initiative also provides core support, which will allow for new studies and interventions, and give researchers flexibility to respond to emerging trends and new opportunities.

On March 17, Christina D. Economos, a Friedman School researcher who has received National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control grants to address childhood nutrition and obesity, will be officially appointed to the New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition. The installation ceremony begins at 4 p.m. in the Behrakis Auditorium of the Jaharis Center on the Boston campus. A 1996 graduate of the Friedman School, Economos is also the associate director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts.

“The New Balance Foundation gift provides core support for those of us who are spending a significant amount of our energy on the obesity crisis, allowing us to generate additional funding, to continue our intervention work, to work toward national policy,” Economos said. Along with Miriam Nelson, founding director of the John Hancock Center, Economos will play a key role in the Children in Balance Initiative.

“It really gives life to our agenda,” Economos said. “It provides an opportunity for students to get involved in terms of student scholarship. And I think it positions us as leaders in bringing together other interested parties within Tufts and outside of Tufts to work with us.”

Cadre of experts
With its gift, the New Balance Foundation hopes to stimulate new investigations among top scientists at Tufts, create a cadre of obesity experts in the Boston community and beyond and seed cross-disciplinary efforts to address the obesity epidemic across many fronts. Katherine Shepard, manager of the foundation, said that the Boston area’s mix of scientists, academics and educators, as well as children in need, makes it a logical place for collaborators to work long term on the epidemic.

christina economos

Christina D. Economos is the first appointee to the New Balance Chair. © Kathleen Dooher

This is the New Balance Foundation’s largest gift since its establishment in 1981. New Balance was also a sponsor of the Time/ABC News Summit on Obesity in Williamsburg, Va., last summer. Subsequently, it encouraged the summit’s New England participants to meet regularly as a task force.

The Children in Balance partnership was sparked when Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow was introduced to Jim Davis, chairman and chief executive of New Balance, and his wife, Anne, an executive vice president.

“I think Jim, as a former marathoner, appreciated the fact that Tufts is an institution committed to health, fitness and wellness,” said Bacow, himself a long-time running enthusiast.

It didn’t take long to see that the foundation’s mission to further the lives of children complemented the research on childhood obesity already under way at the Friedman School.

Those fruits and veggies
Shape Up Somerville has been a vibrant example. Through the program, school cafeterias let students taste-test different fruits and vegetables each month—like spinach, cherry tomatoes or papaya—and then incorporate them into their recipes depending on the response. Salads are making more appearances on menus; potato chips are baked instead of fried, and ice cream sales are limited to one day a week instead of every day.

“We have heard a tremendous amount of positive feedback from parents who have children in the study. They tell us that their children are coming home and saying, ‘We need to have more fruit in the house’ and ‘Look at this label. It has a lot of calcium’ or ‘I want to bring a healthier snack for lunch,’ ” Economos said. “They are bringing the messages home and serving as catalysts for change in their families.”

The Shape Up Somerville study is still under way, but once findings are published, Economos hopes to create a program that can be replicated in other communities, creating a network of Shape Up providers throughout the country. The Children in Balance Initiative will help make that—and many other studies on childhood obesity—a reality.

“One of the important things about the approach of this initiative is that it’s systemic in nature,” Bacow said. “It’s not just focusing on what people put in their mouths but rather how they decide what to eat, how they exercise and what messages we send to kids about what is important.”