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Effort to combat obesity gets Camden children outside more, eating better

September 6, 2013 | Community News, Community News and Media, Media Coverage

Originally published in Courier Post

On a recent gorgeous afternoon, about 20 minutes before school let out, YMCA program director LaShaunda Carter pulled up to Northgate Park in Camden.

She was greeted, as usual, by adults engaged in what some euphemistically call “negative activity.”

Now, a month into the YMCA’s parks program, the regulars know that when Carter and her staff arrive, it’s time to clear out so neighborhood kids can clamber on the park’s new playground equipment and race to the freshly paved basketball court.

“Somebody said, ‘It’s not 3 o’clock yet,’ and I said, ‘That’s why you can still stay here,’ ” Carter said with a chuckle.

“At 3 o’clock … they all just left.”

Since the summer of 2011, a well-organized infusion of money and programs like this one have tried to reverse Camden’s soaring childhood obesity rate.

It’s a complex problem. Tackling it has required a group effort, shepherded by the United Way through the NJ Partnership for Healthy Kids, along with a 10-year, $10-million, Healthy Communities initiative by Camden-based Campbell Soup Co.

In 2008, about 39 percent of the city’s children ages 3 to 18 were overweight or obese. While the city’s current rate isn’t yet available, figures collected by the New Jersey Department of Health showed the rates continued to climb among Camden County’s low-income preschoolers until 2011, when the trend reversed by nearly 1 percentage point.

More Camden children are eating a healthy breakfast, thanks to a pilot program to shift the school-provided meal from 7:30 a.m. to the first period of the day. New wellness policies introduced in schools and day care programs allot more time for physical activity.

A new, noncompetitive, soccer program sponsored by the U.S. Soccer Foundation and operated through the Boys & Girls Club, attracted 300 kids and their families, with goals to double participation next year.

The body-mass index rate among children who participated in the program dropped by a percentage point, said Michael Moynihan, executive director of the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey in Camden County.

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