shape up

Newly released research results show that the City of Somerville’s Shape Up Somerville program’s community-based approach to combating child obesity yields positive outcomes.

Data from the first two school years of the Shape Up Somerville: Eat Smart Play Hard initiative showed fewer Somerville children targeted by the intervention were obese or overweight compared to children in two similar control communities, according to research from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Tufts University School of Medicine.

Using the Body Mass Index (BMI) z-score measure that accounts for both height and age of the child, researchers found that BMI z-scores decreased by 0.06 in the 335 Somerville children in the intervention group of first through third graders, a modest reduction in weight gain compared to the 693 children in the communities that did not receive the intervention. The results have been published online and in the print edition of the journal Preventive Medicine.

Dr. Christina D. Economos from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, who convened the intervention and study, said, “These results are more meaningful than the modest reduction in weight gain suggests. The early years of elementary school are when we expect children to gain weight as they grow. What’s driving the child obesity rate is pervasive unhealthy weight gain in children at a young age, particularly in low-income and often culturally diverse communities where access and availability of healthy food and physical activity options are limited.”

The 20-month intervention engaged the entire community, from parents and teachers to school food service and city departments to local businesses and organizations. School lunch menus were reworked to provide healthier options, opportunities for physical activity for students during the day were increased, and additional initiatives such as working with local restaurants to offer healthier menu items were undertaken.

“The initial study’s blueprint told us that making the healthy choice the easy choice required a community-based effort, holistically addressing the systems that shape our environment,” Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said. “A top-down plan cannot address the needs of a diverse community. It cannot sustain over the long haul, because leadership has limited time to devote to any single program, and leadership also changes over time. Cultivating a strong grassroots effort is the only way to see an effort like this take root, sustain and grow.”
Somerville took the reins of the program after the first school year of the intervention and has continued on ever since:

  • Somerville Public Schools no longer have trans fats, fryolators or chocolate milk and serve lean meats and whole grains, unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables at lunch and low-fat dairy.
  • Students participate in physical activity before school, during school and after school through a “walking school bus” program, in-class programs and structured recess time, and creative after-school programs.
  • The City has invested in its transportation infrastructure including bike lanes and improved crosswalks and walking routes and has since earned recognition as the 10th most walkable and 8th most bikeable city in the nation. Renovations of existing parks and the establishment of new parks, along with the city’s Open Streets Initiative, promote and support active living by inviting people out of their homes and into public spaces.
  • The healthy food retailer program Shape Up Approved now has more than 50 restaurants enrolled.
  • Fresh, local produce available through the Somerville Mobile Farmers’ Market has increased access to affordable, healthy foods across the city. The Mobile Farmers’ Market operates at the Mystic Housing Development and Clarendon Hill Housing at North Street, as well as the Council on Aging Holland Street center, accepting EBT, WIC and Farmers’ Market Coupons. Residents of the housing developments and anyone receiving food assistance purchase items at half price.
  •  The city has a robust school garden and community garden program and launched an Urban Agriculture Initiative in 2012 as well including sponsoring the city’s first urban farm with partner Groundworks Somerville, which also runs the school garden program.

“Everyone must be invested, transforming their own spheres of influence to transform our environment,” said Mayor Curtatone. “We’ve now seen, time and time again, that if we can give people ubiquitous and accessible options, they will choose to eat healthier, get active and live better lives.”


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