“Because of the increasing rates of obesity…we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.” —former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD, MPH
The statistics are alarming: about one in three children and teens in the U.S. is overweight or obese. Illinois ranks the fourth worst in the nation for obesity, led by Chicago where the prevalence of obese children ages 3 to 7 is twice the national average. In some Chicago neighborhoods, it is as high as 60 percent.
Children’s is on the front lines addressing this epidemic through its leadership in the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Children in Chicago (CLOCC), which promotes healthy and active lifestyles throughout the Chicago region.
CLOCC brings together individuals and organizations to address contributing factors, which include lack of access to healthy foods; lack of safe places to be physically active; and lack of programs that serve healthy snacks and meals and promote physical activity.
Children who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, depression, arthritis and other chronic conditions. Obese teens have a near 80 percent chance of staying overweight their entire lives, therefore prevention is critical.
“We have a responsibility to try to prevent childhood obesity through education, outreach and environmental change approaches that make healthy living easier,” says Adam B. Becker, PhD, MPH, Executive Director of CLOCC.
An Ambitious Model
CLOCC was founded at Children’s in 2002 by Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, MD, MPH, who recognized the growing problem before it was widely publicized. “As I saw children becoming obese at younger and younger ages, I realized that the lifestyle changes would have to be developed outside the clinical setting,” says Dr. Christoffel. “To help these kids and others like them, I proposed an ambitious model to strive for changes in the community as well as in the home.”
CLOCC is recognized as a national model for obesity prevention efforts by the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine and the Surgeon General. Its leadership status was affirmed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services when it awarded CLOCC, as bona fide agent for the Chicago Department of Public Health, a two-year, $5.8 million “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” grant to pursue city-wide environmental changes and to provide funding to 10 community organizations.
CLOCC enlists its community networkers to identify neighborhood-specific barriers to healthy lifestyles and then team up with members of the community to develop solutions.
Ed Boone is involved in the Healthy Stores Campaign in Chicago’s west Humboldt Park neighborhood, an area often referred to as a “food desert” for its dearth of fresh produce. He is reaching out to corner store owners to address their obstacles to selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Boone recently helped store owner Ray Samhan obtain a donated cooler to display and promote his new healthy offerings.
Miguel Morales is creating safe opportunities for physical activity in east Humboldt Park/West Town. He teams up with partners like West Town Bikes to organize community bike rides and trains organizations in CLOCC’s Neighborhood Walkability Assessment process in which obstacles to physical activity are identified. These may include broken sidewalks, potholes, inadequate lighting, abandoned lots, ineffective traffic signals and public safety issues. “I’m seeing a cultural shift as more kids take up biking,” he says. “I hope more people will use our assessment tools to start changing their environments.”
To help kids and families understand the components of a healthy lifestyle, CLOCC developed the 5-4-3-2-1-Go!™ message, which outlines key daily recommendations:
5 servings of fruits and vegetables
4 servings of water
3 servings of low-fat dairy
2 hours or less of screen time
1 hour or more of physical activity
CLOCC has trained hundreds of community members on the 5-4-3-2-1-Go!™ message and its online materials have been downloaded in 90 communities across Illinois, 49 states and at least a dozen countries around the world.
Signs of Progress
There are early signs of progress with the rate of obesity in children entering school in Chicago dropping from 24 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2008. “It’s an indication that, as a city, we’re moving in the right direction, however, we still have a lot of work to do,” says Dr. Becker.
CLOCC has also made strides on the legislative front, helping to develop a statewide childhood obesity policy agenda. Its advocacy efforts have contributed to new standards for healthy food and physical activity opportunities for children in day care, along with a law that allows for electronic benefits transfer (such as a debit card for those receiving public assistance for food) transactions at farmers’ markets. Dr. Christoffel, who is retiring this year, is proud of how CLOCC has grown to involve more than 1,200 organizations and what it has accomplished so far. She says she hopes incremental changes will someday add up to a healthier environment for everyone — “one in which all people can eat healthy and be active wherever they live, work, learn, and play.”
CLOCC receives funding support from the Otho S. A. Sprague Memorial Institute, The Chicago Community Trust, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Michael Reese Health Trust, The Kresgy Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Kraft Foods Foundation, and BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois.
Story originally appeared in the fall 2011 issue of Heroes Magazine.