New York Probes Solutions For City's Overweight Children

In New York City, a recent report showed that 40 percent of the city's schoolchildren are overweight or obese. Host Michel Martin discusses about what’s being done to address the problem that strikes primarily poor sections of the city with Dr. Olajide Williams, who has launched a health education program for children in Harlem. Also weighing in is Lori Rose Benson who is the executive director for the Office of School Wellness Programs in New York City.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Schools are a primary battleground in the nation's fight against childhood obesity. But that can be a special challenge, especially for urban school systems. New York recently released data showing that 40 percent of the city's school children are overweight or obese. And when the numbers were broken down by neighborhood, researchers discovered that the city's wealthier enclaves have smaller percentages of overweight or obese children, while the less affluent neighborhoods had the highest rates.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Lori Rose Benson. She is the executive director for the Office of School Wellness Programs in New York City. We caught up with her in Sunrise, Florida.

Also with us is Dr. Olajide Williams, who has launched a health education program for children in Harlem. It's called Hip Hop Heals. And he joins us from our studios in New York.

I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. LORI ROSE BENSON (Executive director, Office of School Wellness Programs): Oh, thank you so much, Michel. It's...

Dr. OLAJIDE WILLIAMS (Founder, director, Hip Hop Heals): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Lori Rose Benson, can I start with you and just ask were these numbers disappointing? Because I know that the city has made a major effort on health in a number of areas. Was it disappointing to discover that it doesnt seem as though youre making as much headway as I assume you would like, at least in this area?

Ms. BENSON: Well, it is discouraging that the numbers have not gone down over the last few years. But what is encouraging is that they actually have held steady since we did a study in 2003, showing very similar numbers. But what's exciting is that we actually have this data. We didnt have a formal way to assess students at this level. And about five years ago, we introduced the New York City FitnessGram Assessment as part of the regular physical education program. And now, last year, more than 810,000 students and their families received these individual FitnessGram progress reports. And what's good about this is that now we're able to share this information with children, we're able to help, to work with them to empower them to set individual fitness goals. But also we're able to have the conversation with parents, because most parents seem to feel that they're children are at a healthy weight when we know that that's not the case.

MARTIN: Just to put this into context, as we said, that two out of five or 40 percent of the 637,000 children in kindergarten through the eight grade were found to be overweight or obese in New York in the 2008-2009 school year. And that compares with about 35.5 percent of six to 11 year olds nationally, according to data from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it seems that New York's numbers are in line with the national picture. They're just not better.

Dr. Williams, as we mentioned, your program Hip Hop Heals, goes into the schools and uses hip-hop music and cartoons to teach kids about healthy eating.

I just want to play a short clip of a song by Chuck D.

(Soundbite of video from program, Hip Hop Heals)

CHUCK D (Rapper): (Rapping) So good in the hood, if you know what I mean. That's fruit, full grain, low-fat, that's lean. (unintelligible) when you sing it like D. Fresh fish make a date (unintelligible). What you wanna do is drink your water too. And less sugar, it will keep you real lean. Woo.

MARTIN: Wow. And you can dance to it, so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So what are you trying - what are you aiming for here?

Dr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I'm actually a neurologist and I, in my own personal practice, have begun to see children - rather adolescents, arriving with diseases, you know, that our parents and grandparents used to have in their 50s and 60s. And so we ask the critic question: how can we better engage these children and involve them in the process? And one of the things that we decided to build upon was the powerful experience that social marketing folks have had with children, using them to influence adult purchasing behavior.

I mean I have 10-year-old and a seven-year-old at home and they have a sort of power over me. I hope they're not listening to this message, but this broadcast, but they have...

MARTIN: I think they know. They probably know.

Dr. WILLIAMS: They have significant influence over my purchasing behavior. So that there is overwhelming PERK(ph) evidence that the children do have the ability and the power to influence adult purchasing behavior. The question we had was, can we bring public health into this arena? Can we actually use these children to influence adult food purchasing behavior?

MARTIN: I would like to ask each of you though, and Lori Rose Benson, maybe you'll start us off here, is, do you think that the challenge at this point is parents not knowing what to buy or whether or not having access to that which they need on the budgets that they can afford? I mean I have heard parents say you know what, I can feed my kids dinner with $5 at a fast food restaurant off the dollar menu and they're full. And I take, you know, $5 to one of those nice grocery stores that are popping up and $5 will get me sack of peaches, and that's not enough to feed my family on.

Ms. BENSON: You know, I wish I can give you the quick fix answer but there really are so many pieces to this puzzle. It's important to target all of these pieces of the spectrum. I think it's important to simultaneously help parents understand that there can be affordable choices even within their neighborhoods, that children can actually have an impact on influencing their parents' decisions. But that is also really important on the other side to be active as a family to embrace physical activity. So I think it's really that combination of supporting the knowledge and providing access.

MARTIN: Dr. Williams, what about you? Is this a question of people not knowing what is best for them? Or is it a question of them not knowing how to figure out how to actually do it?

Dr. WILLIAMS: What I see in my everyday work in the hospital and in the community is that it really is a combination of both. We cannot overlook the importance of knowledge. I treat patients all the time that have high blood pressure, for example. And while a lot of people know that they have to cut down their sodium intake, you'll be surprised when a nutritionist sits in front of them and starts going through food items that they eat that they didnt realize contain a high amount of sodium, they themselves are surprised that they didnt realize that. And I have many, many examples of how knowledge is also important.

But that said, I must emphasize that knowledge alone does not get you to behavior change. The bridge to behavior change requires multiple other things that includes some of the things that weve talked about. Motivation is critical, access is critical, cost is a big part of this, and so we need to address all these factors together.

MARTIN: Okay. Ms. Benson, final thought from you. What do you think it would take to make a real dent here? I mean youre in charge. All of a sudden, weve given you the magic wand.

Ms. BENSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What does it take?

Ms. BENSON: Well, I think it takes being really collaborative in our work. I think it's important that the Department of Education needs to continue to work with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I think we have to continue helping principals understand how physical education is a core component of the school day and how we can make it easy for them to understand the connection not between just the health component, but also the connection between academic achievement and healthy levels of fitness because that's what weve seen. Weve seen students that have higher levels of fitness are also higher academically achieving.

WE can't just look at the calories out part of this equation. We have to look at the calories in and not have additional calories accessible at our children's fingertips from day-to-day. So finding healthier ways to do fundraising, because that's absolutely and a very important part and something that schools are very interested, but also finding ways that we can support that healthy environment. Not just within the school but around the school zones.

MARTIN: So no home-baked cupcakes for you for your birthday this year.

Ms. BENSON: Well, you know, there are lots of ways to celebrate important milestones. And if you can imagine an elementary school classroom and the amount of birthdays every month throughout the year, it all adds up. So its not just one cupcake, you know, it's this big picture and the more we can help shape this environment and think about this culture of school wellness and understand the health implications and the academic implications, I think the more energy we will have to continue taking steps down that path.

MARTIN: Lori Rose Benson is the executive director for the Office of School Wellness Programs in New York City. We caught up with her in Sunrise, Florida. Also with us, Dr. Olajide Williams, he's the creator of the Hip Hop Heals Program in Harlem, and he joined us from our studios in New York.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BENSON: Thank you so much.

Dr. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

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