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Children in Balance

The idea for a garden at the Watson Elementary School in Fall River, Massachusetts, came about after a first-grade girl said her family didn’t have enough food at home.

The school’s principal saw an opportunity to start a garden that would be a teaching tool as well as a community asset. Neighborhood residents took an interest. Some would stop by and offer tips in Portuguese on growing tomatoes.

Now the garden at the city’s oldest and smallest school produces tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, beans, squash, and zucchini. It also teaches valuable lessons.

“The children learn carrots grow in the ground and potatoes aren’t French fries,” says Marcia Picard, Fall River school wellness coordinator.

The garden at the Watson School was the first of 10 community gardens now planted in the city as a part of the Balance Project, a community-wide initiative led by the Tufts Friedman School as part of its Children in Balance program. Children in Balance works to combat and curb the childhood obesity epidemic in this country through community-based research interventions.

Over the past 30 years, obesity rates in the United States have doubled among adults and tripled among children. Physical activity levels and fitness have decreased, diets have shifted toward less healthy foods, and diseases related to obesity and lack of fitness are driving up health-care costs, threatening to reverse the enormous advances in public health achieved during the last century.

In an effort to reverse this trend, Fall River was one of three cities nationwide chosen to replicate key components of Tufts’ noted Shape Up Somerville model. Shape Up was a citywide childhood obesity research study that was launched by Tufts Associate Professor Christina Economos, N96, holder of the New Balance Chair in Childhood Nutrition, and fellow researchers at the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention at the Friedman School.

As part of the Shape Up effort, Somerville schools increased the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products at school meals; local restaurants offered low-fat milk and smaller portion sizes; and the city added bike racks and repainted crosswalks to increase opportunities for physical activity, such as walking and biking to school. As a result, Shape Up was the first study of its kind to prevent undesirable weight gain in children.

The success of Shape Up Somerville made international headlines and has been hailed by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative as a national model for childhood obesity prevention. A $2.2 million grant from the PepsiCo Foundation for the Balance Project enabled the groundbreaking experiment to be replicated in cities in Pennsylvania and Florida as well as in Fall River.

So far, progress in Fall River has been very encouraging, Picard says. Training programs have been launched to help community agencies support good nutrition. Community cable TV shows describe the benefits of fresh local produce, and city schools are taking part in a statewide project encouraging children to walk to school in supervised groups. These shifts in community culture have played a key role in bringing about important behavior changes on an individual level. For example, this summer 1,600 youngsters took a pledge to give up or cut back on sweetened drinks; at one school, 93 percent of the pupils took the pledge.

“The community mindset has changed,” says Picard. “Our aim is to encourage children to serve as change agents, to come home and have an apple instead of a doughnut, and carry a message about healthy living.”

For more information and to contribute to Children in Balance, contact:

Sean Devendorf
Director of Annual Giving and Alumni Relations
Friedman School
150 Harrison Ave., Suite 241
Boston, MA 02111
tel: 617.636.2949
sean.devendorf@tufts.edu