Reframing the Obesity Epidemic
By Robert Schroeder
The Center for Disease Control's latest statistics on obesity among America's youth paint a troubling picture. As of 2008, one in five children ages 6-11 were considered obese; one in three children and adolescents fit the category.
The Center charges schools with a critical role in preventing childhood obesity, noting that "schools play a particularly critical role by establishing a safe and supportive environment with policies and practices that support healthy behaviors."
How well are Chicago Public Schools doing at implementing strategies for obesity prevention? National Louis University's Suzette Fromm Reed, Ph.D., and Judah Viola, Ph.D., assistant professors in the community psychology program in the College of Arts and Sciences, are working with the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC) to evaluate what strategies are working and which systems need further support in CPS obesity prevention programs.
"We have taken a qualitative look at the top performing schools, and we wanted to see what their strengths were, a principal in community psychology," said Reed. "The consortium won't be there forever, so we wanted to make this sustainable within the community so that community-based organizations can come in and take up the role of the consortium."
In their evaluation, Reed and Viola found that having a community stakeholder like CLOCC active in school systems was a critical piece to successful obesity prevention programs. School administrators often faced time and resources issues, and the ability of a community organization to facilitate a planning and incorporation process firmly established obesity programs in the school setting. The professors also identified "wellness champions" within schools, individuals with a vested personal interest in health and wellness who were successful at motivating faculty and staff connected with obesity programs. Reed and Viola determined that these leaders succeeded at connecting with faculty, parents and community to create an integrated, sustainable program.
Like most community-based efforts, organizations in Chicagoland addressing obesity face funding challenges. Successful funding is a key piece to free up both wellness champions and school leaders to focus on developing the community ties necessary for sustainability.
"In order to create change in schools, it takes time to build relationships so that there is trust between parents, faculty, staff and administrators that can pay dividends later on down the line," Viola said. "Schools most highly involved and engaged have been at this for a few years but weren't seeing great results for the first years; if they were able to sustain the effort, they were seeing the greatest gains."
Reed and Viola see the obesity epidemic as an issue framed by the community at large as opposed to an individual context. CLOCC has set a goal of increasing access to healthy foods, working with "corner stores" typically selling high-calorie, highly processed foods to create plans to carry a wider variety of food products. The impact of food deserts on students was debated at the community psychology department's panel discussion on the Occupy Movement, a challenge students face both in their community and the school setting.
"Access to healthy foods in schools is an issue unto itself," Viola said. "Progress has been made in some schools that has not been widespread across the whole system that we would like to see in a more systematic way."
Reed and Viola see their community work as closely tied to the University's mission of increasing acces for students and communities. The professors see their role as evaluators as creating a crucial connection between individuals and systems in the community, bringing both together to work to change policies and settings to improve health and welfare.
"It's so easy to default to the individual," Reed said. "On television every day, with shows like Dr. Oz so focused on the individual, we are missing something there.
"We are really reframing the issue of obesity as more of a social justice issue, because of theaccess to the foods, because of the market places in the communities. We're missing something here, continually defaulting to the individual."