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Newark’s citywide fight against childhood obesity

March 21, 2014 | Blog, Community News and Media, Media Coverage, Newark

Originally published in the Star Ledger on

by Dr. Nwando Anyaoku

Progress in public health is often surprising and sometimes mysterious. A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the first substantial evidence that obesity rates have fallen over the past decade in children 2 to 5 years old. While the report sliced through some of the pessimism on childhood obesity, it failed to explain why the picture has improved.

Some commentators credited first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, which was front and center at last week’s Partnership for a Healthier America summit. The conference united public health advocates and food companies in an effort to devise better strategies to fight childhood obesity.

It was an important summit because many of America’s inner cities, which shoulder the burden of obesity, have been stymied in crafting an action plan. With the best intentions, they pour their meager obesity-related budgets into a single initiative such as an after-school sports program. At that point, other good ideas that should be given a chance to cross-pollinate instead die on the vine.

Newark, a city that has struggled with some of the highest child obesity rates in the country, has taken a different track. Think of it as a captain’s call for all hands on deck.
The idea is to strengthen partnerships among all the different constituencies — educational, political, corporate, academic and nonprofit — that are trying to address the epidemic. This approach is backed by the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which for years has worked to break down policy barriers that impede progress against complex health problems.

Newark’s leaders strongly support this community-based approach. One defining moment was a packed news conference in 2010, when former mayor and PHA vice-chair Cory Booker declared, “I am fat,” and then rolled out “Let’s Move! Newark.” Under his stewardship, and continuing under Mayor Luis Quintana, politicians and business leaders put a priority on community access to fresh foods, physical activity programs and increased nutrition education.

Newark has taken a different track. Think of it as a captain’s call for all hands on deck.

One thing we have learned is that healthy habits should be established early in life. For example, we know that breastfeeding is one of the best ways to set children on the path toward a healthy body weight. Yet even when we distribute literature on the subject, the message often gets lost. A new mother has to hear about breastfeeding and other best practices, not just from her doctor, but from voices in her own community.

One of the city’s public/private partnerships, the Nestlé/Newark Now! program, meets this challenge by mobilizing fathers, grandmothers, neighbors and friends to reinforce important early nutrition messages. By training family members who have completed the program to serve as “peer educators,” the program places responsibility and resources in the hands of the community.

Naturally, pediatricians at hospitals throughout the city also take a leading role. And for all of us, community involvement is a tremendous aid. As a pediatrician and co-director of the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids, I have limited time to spend with the mothers of each of my patients. Now, I can refer each of them to organizations that will answer their questions and provide support. The list includes Newark Now!, local YMCAs, summer camps and Head­Start groups.

The battle plan against obesity has to be multidimensional because there’s not one sector of our community that doesn’t care about the future of our children. In the nonprofit world, and sometimes in politics, I’ve found that decision makers may be wary of corporate involvement. PHA’s efforts and our work in Newark have proved that companies can be effective partners, just as much as civic and political groups.

In New Jersey, politicians, corporations, nonprofit and community organizations have come together around a pragmatic philosophy: service, dedication and collaboration. The secret is breaking down barriers and inviting all stakeholders to the table. It’s a recipe Newark is very happy to share with communities across the nation.

Nwando Anyaoku, M.D., is director of general pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey and advisory board member to Nestlé/Newark Now!

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