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Camden can be a tough place to grow up. Sometimes, food is hard to come by – healthy food is almost impossible. And because your parents are worried about your safety, you have to stay in the house after school. No walking to the playground with your friends. No soccer practice. It’s understandable then that the city’s childhood obesity rate is skyrocketing.

Enter one large, committed group of people – from all walks of life – who are joining an initiative to take on the huge task of reversing those obesity numbers by 2014. They’re fighting in a food desert, where crime is keeping families out of city parks, and supermarkets simply don’t exist. But healthy kids are reason to battle against the odds, they say. And so they will, determined to make a difference in the lives of Camden’s children.

 

One of Bryan Morton’s earliest memories is standing in a line on State Street in Camden with his grandmother. He was about 6 years old, and they were waiting to get free cheese, butter and milk from the government truck.

“My family was one of those families,” he says. “I grew up understanding what it’s like when jobs dry up, and the question of whether to pay for food or rent is a regular part of conversation. I remember as a kid going to the store with food stamps, and the way we were making our purchase signaled to everyone that we were on some sort of public assistance. Immediately, you feel shame. You’re stigmatized as having been a failure, because you need public support. I personally understand food scarcity, because that was a part of my life growing up.”

openingdudesdsc_6731-1For Morton, those memories are from a faraway past. At 41, he now is earning his master’s degree at Rutgers-Camden, living with his wife and 3-year-old daughter in the North Camden home he grew up in, and working for the YMCA of Camden and Burlington Counties. His life experiences have brought him to exactly where he is supposed to be, he says. And that is in North Camden, working within a special initiative to address food issues and combat the epidemic of childhood obesity, which studies show is significantly more serious in his neighborhood than in other parts of the state and country.

The initiative – called the New Jersey Partnership for Healthy Kids – was spurred by a study released by the Rutgers Center for Health Policy that found kids in five New Jersey towns were at the highest risk for becoming obese. Responding to that data, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invested almost $2 million in an initiative to significantly impact the epidemic in those towns: Trenton, Newark, New Brunswick, Vineland and Camden. The YMCA has taken on the role of co-director of the project in each town, which will receive $350,000 over three years.

“The issues that stack up against a kid are even more challenging in places like Camden,” says Tim Kerrihard, CEO of the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties. “It’s one of those unique places where obesity and hunger co-exist.”

Kerrihard believes a notable aspect of the Healthy Kids project has been the ability to gather people from all different walks of life – business, residents, physicians, clergy, lawmakers – to form an advisory board that would work toward one goal: making a dent in the staggering number of children in Camden who are obese.

“Most people associate the Y with programs,” Kerrihard says. “But what this has uncovered is that the Y is really good at convening people around critical issues. The health of children just happens to be an issue that is near and dear to our heart.”

Charged with reversing the obesity epidemic by 2014, the partnership in Camden began by hosting four neighborhood summits to get resident input. “We wanted to begin the conversation about what the project should look like,” says Valerie Galarza, the partnership’s project manager.

valeridsc_6654-1“It became clear that residents wanted more access to healthy foods, more places for their kids to play outside safely, and more active in-school and after-school programs for their children,” Galarza says.

Over the course of several months, the advisory board developed four main strategies; each was influenced by the needs identified at those neighborhood meetings.

 

Strategy #1:  Get wellness policies into the public schools.

Introducing a new policy into a public school system is a monumental task, and one that always requires school board approval. “We established a great relationship with the superintendent of schools and the school’s food service provider, which is Aramark,” says Galarza. “All of us collectively put together a wellness policy; it took quite a few months to develop.

“The policy calls for changes that will increase physical activities and healthy eating in the schools,” says Galarza. “For example, we suggest having breakfast served in the classroom after the bell rings. This way more students can take advantage of the free breakfast program, and after eating breakfast, children are more likely to have a balance of meals for the rest of the day. And having breakfast in the classroom has shown to increase class participation.”

Schools are also encouraged to use non-food items for fundraisers (so no bake sales) and develop structured physical activities during recess to replace the usual free time.

The new wellness policy has yet to come up for board approval. Galarza expects that to happen soon, with positive results. “Without putting words in the board’s mouth, I think we have a great chance,” she says. “They have been very supportive so far.”

 

Strategy #2:  Revitalize at least two neighborhood parks.

The first part of this initiative is well underway. This month, volunteers will descend on Northgate Park to build a new playground. (The build will take place on October 20, and new volunteers are welcome.) The large project has been a neighborhood-wide effort, bringing together organizations like Friends of Northgate Park, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership and Save Our Waterfront.

In addition to the playground build, the partnership hired a manager to bring structured activities to the park for residents. The candidate they hired is well educated and has experience revitalizing communities. He’s also a neighborhood local, someone who remembers when the park was a desirable part of the community – Bryan Morton.

“I can remember when it was okay to go to the park on any day of the week,” says Morton. “But those opportunities have been stripped away, and children are not being given the opportunity to be children – to run around like crazy and get as sweaty as possible and come home and say, ‘Mom, I want a drink of water.’ They’re sitting in front of a TV saying, ‘Mom, I want some soda.’ That sedentary lifestyle is contributing to the problem of childhood obesity.”

The Rutgers study that started the Healthy Kids initiative noted very clearly that one of the reasons kids in these impoverished cities were sedentary was that parents kept them indoors because of safety concerns. Morton is determined to provide safe outdoor spaces for children and families. “We want families to re-establish their relationship with public spaces, so parents are comfortable with the idea of not locking their children in the house. Kids are kept where parents believe they are safe, but kids are not participating in healthy activities. We’re not building healthy communities.

“The idea,” Morton adds, “is to use parks as community centers or fitness centers without walls. We can then begin to counter the public safety issues that so often cause parents to make decisions around their child’s safety that can lead to some unintended health consequences.”

The passionate leader hopes to collaborate with local colleges and high schools and invite their sports teams to host workshops at the park. “I’m working with the Woodrow Wilson High School basketball coach to see if we can get their young men and women coming to the park to teach basketball skills to the kids,” says Morton.

“It’s a victory for everyone. The athletes can teach a sport they love, the next generation of Woodrow Wilson basketball players will be born, and at the same time, we’re reclaiming the basketball court. So now parents know that maybe two days a week, a high school basketball player is going to be at the park, and they can send their child. Plus, Woodrow Wilson will be known for something other than what we hear in the news. People will see that the school is filled with quality young men and women who are mentoring through sport.”

Morton also sees a key part of his job as devising a volunteer maintenance plan for the park.

“While the city has an obligation to maintain public parks, the reality is our city is stressed. It is up to us as residents, businesses and partners to develop ways to assist our city. If we partner with public works, marry in some volunteers and organizations that do landscaping, we can develop a schedule that effectively has the park covered at least four or five of the seven days. Then we can get around the fact that there are negative activities in the park – some individuals use drugs and drink alcohol in the park. Having a maintenance plan will ensure that a child never walks into the park and sees discarded drug wrappers or needles.

“I used to be a cook, and they used to say, ‘It doesn’t matter how delicious the food is, if the plate isn’t presented correctly, no one will eat it.’ If you walk into the park, and there are leaves all over the place and the trash cans need to be emptied, you’re not going to feel safe. We have to present quality from when you first walk into the park to change residents’ perceptions about the park being safe, because everyone equates clean with healthy. So I can’t ever have a dirty park. A maintenance plan also sends a message to those who intend to use the park for negative activities that they no longer have free range in the park. A maintenance plan brings ‘normal’ back into the park.”

 

Strategy #3:  Shrink the food desert by increasing the number of farmers’ markets, community gardens and corner stores that sell healthy foods.

The phrase “food desert” has been coined to describe low-income neighborhoods where residents have no access to supermarkets and grocery stores. To buy fresh foods for their families, these residents need to travel to other towns, which is often not possible.

“People think it’s normal that we can’t find fresh food in our communities,” says Morton. “That shouldn’t be the norm. Our work is to shrink the food desert by connecting families to the corner stores and mobile markets that are selling fresh foods.”

To help with this, Campbell’s Soup has become a partner in the initiative and is funding a large effort to promote – and increase – the community gardensand farmers’ markets in the city. The well-known business also donated to the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, which is run by a Philadelphia non-profit called The Food Trust.

“The Food Trust is working with corner stores in Camden and offering them financial incentives to enroll in the program,” says Galarza. “One of the first things a store must do when they sign up is add four new healthy products to their inventory. The Food Trust will then provide assistance on how to promote and sell the new products. They’ll do things like help the store owner set up a display and maybe develop a flyer for the neighborhood.”

The initiative has also added several mobile farmers’ markets to the city. “These are trucks with fresh fruit and vegetables that will go from neighborhood to neighborhood,” explains Galarza. “The trucks are green and yellow because we want them to stand out. They have a set schedule, so they are in a neighborhood on the same day every week. We hope people will shop there for produce.”

 

Strategy #4:  Open school grounds on weekends and evenings for kids and families to use.

The thought is that by allowing community members to enter school grounds – to use basketball courts or playgrounds – even though school is closed, kids and adults would get some much-needed exercise. Still in its early stages of planning, this last strategy has some kinks to be worked out. “This is tough, because there are maintenance and liability issues for the schools,” says Galarza. “There is an extra cost for having schools open at these times. We understand that, so we are trying to find a way. We know it is a challenge, but we are working on finding schools that are open to the idea.”

Galarza is quick to note that all the work going on in this large initiative has been a group effort, including a close relationship with United Way of Camden County. “It takes a lot of collaborators,” she says. “This has been a community-driven project, and that is why we have accomplished what we have so far.”

For Morton, the project is about bringing back the sense of community he grew up with and improving the lives of his neighbors. “Imagine if you woke up tomorrow and there was no organized baseball, no organized soccer and very limited after-school activities. And there was no way to buy fruit or fresh vegetables for your family. What would you do?” he asks. “That’s the reality for many of our kids and our families living in North Camden for maybe the last decade.

“We have the opportunity to work together to improve the lives of these families,” Morton adds. “No matter who you are, there is one thing we can all agree on: all our children should be healthy and safe. That’s the work we’re doing here.”

October 2012
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