Keeping Young Kids Healthy

The mayor, Northeastern, the Red Sox, and Children's Hospital fight obesity

Three major Boston institutions — Northeastern University, the Boston Red Sox, and Children’s Hospital Boston — are joining forces with Mayor Thomas Menino to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity. The Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program, a pilot educational and research program, aims to educate preschool caregivers and parents about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity, and provide young children new opportunities to be active.

The initiative was announced April 15 by Northeastern president Joseph Aoun, Boston Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino and Children’s Hospital Boston CEO Dr. James Mandell, who were joined by Mayor Menino at the Roxbury Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) Head Start site.

Focused on preschool-aged children enrolled in Head Start programs in the Lower Roxbury, Mission Hill, Fenway, and South End communities surrounding Northeastern, the pilot program will have two main features: workshops on nutrition and physical activity for parents and caregivers, with open gym time for preschoolers and their parents.

“From day one, we have to give these kids an opportunity for the future, and we are working together to make sure these kids have a healthy start,” said Menino.

The key messages of Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures include reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, increasing fruits and vegetables, elevating physical activity, and reducing time spent in front of the television screen. The program, in concert with Action for Boston Community Development Head Start, the Boston Public Health Commission, and the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, will offer workshops stressing these goals at several ABCD sites, as well as free two-hour open gym sessions on Saturday mornings, so that kids ages 3–8 and their families can participate in safe, accessible, creative and fun physical activity with their families. A group of Northeastern students is being trained to lead the sessions.

One recent study found that nearly 20 percent of U.S. four-year-olds are obese. And, said Tara Agrawal, program manager for Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, “only about nine percent of nutrition and exercise programming is targeted toward early childhood. It’s a vulnerable population. We believe this effort will set a trajectory for good health in the future by focusing on the people who have the most control over young children’s environment — their providers and their parents.”

“The Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program exemplifies Northeastern’s Stony Brook Initiative, which is fundamentally about community engagement,” said Aoun. “Complex problems require collaborative solutions. This partnership will show that what we can’t accomplish alone, we can accomplish together.”

Echoing the Northeastern president, Boston Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino said, “At the Red Sox, we want to be more than just a baseball team, and this is an opportunity for the Red Sox to be actively involved with great partners in a project that will directly benefit the people in our community.”

In particular, the program is targeted at neighborhoods that bear a disproportionate burden of ailments such as diabetes and heart disease, often caused by obesity. Children’s president Dr. James Mandell noted that the consequences of childhood obesity are dire. “Starting to educate about healthy habits at this young age goes a long way towards prevention of these serious health issues,” such as diabetes.
 
"Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures casts a health promotion net around the main environments where preschool-aged children spend their time," says Jessica Blom-Hoffman, associate professor of counseling psychology at Northeastern and coprincipal investigator for the project.

The research that Blom-Hoffman and other Northeastern faculty conduct is aimed in part at helping Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures secure long-term funding from the National Institutes of Health, so that the program can be replicated in the Boston area and nationwide, a goal applauded by Mandell.

“An effort against obesity has to be a collaboration, and I think that this program could serve as a national model,” said Mandell.