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‘You’re the Mom’ Campaign Takes On Childhood Obesity

Parental Guidance Suggested

Natalie, a Springfield mother

Natalie, a Springfield mother, is one of two women featured on murals for the “You’re the Mom” campaign.

Here’s a whopper of a statistic: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of U.S. kids eat fast food every day.

But they’re not, for the most part, buying it for themselves; parents are making those choices.

That’s the issue that “You’re the Mom,” a new public-health campaign launched by ChildObesity180 at Tufts University, seeks to address. The campaign offers an array of messaging through various media, with one goal: get mothers thinking about the nutritional choices they’re making for their kids, and hopefully make better ones.

“We’re looking to increase the supply of healthier menu options for kids and create more consumer demand for those options,” said Linda Harelick, director of operations and communications at ChildObesity180. “We have engaged the restaurant industry and restaurant brands, and we’ve learned that there have been changes to menu options. Things have gotten healthier in the fast-food setting.”

However, she went on, “parents aren’t always aware of it. They get into the habit of ordering the number 7, or have their kids order a couple items off the dollar menu. Nobody’s studying the menu. We want to make them aware there are healthier options to choose from.”

In short, she explained, “we want to celebrate moms for the people they are and the role they play in families and communities — and give them simple tips.”

Harelick knows the issue is a complicated one, especially in a city with many low-income families living in neighborhoods underserved by stores selling fresh produce and other healthy options — a problem echoed by Kristine Allard, vice president of development for Springfield-based early-education provider Square One.

We want to celebrate moms for the people they are and the role they play in families and communities — and give them simple tips.”

“Particularly here in Springfield, where so many neighborhoods struggle with being part of a food desert, we know it’s not always easy to access good, healthy choices, and some families make fast foods their only option,” Allard told BusinessWest.

For families on a budget — often living near the poverty line — a visit to a fast-food drive-thru is often an exercise in filling up their children quickly at little expense, she went on. “But if we can make changes to what they order — swapping water for soda, ordering apple slices instead of fries, downsizing, not supersizing — that can make a big difference.”

She’s under no illusion that fast food is the best option for kids, “but if we can make small changes — and, in the long term, they make smarter choices — we can help reduce childhood obesity. It just makes sense.”

Square One is among a number of local organizations, including Partners for a Healthier Community and Springfield Food Policy Council, that are partnering with ChildObesity180 on the campaign, which is being piloted in the City of Homes, with plans to roll it out nationally in 2017.

Harelick recognizes that too few parents are immune to the combined pressures of packed schedules and picky kids bombarded with marketing for less-healthy options. But she believes the “You’re the Mom” campaign can make a difference, one choice at a time.

The campaign includes billboards, radio spots, bus advertisements, a heavy social-media presence (its hub is yourethemom.org), and murals by artist Marka27 — at 1072 State St. and 461 Main St. — featuring real Springfield mothers and promoting the message, “you’re the mom; you make decisions about what your kids eat,” Harelick explained.

The issue is nothing new to Partners for a Healthier Community (PHC), which joined several other community organizations eight years ago to launch Live Well Springfield, a movement to promote physical activity in area youth and increase access to healthy foods, a two-pronged approach to slowing a trend that has seen childhood-obesity rates triple nationwide and locally over the past few decades.

“What Tufts is doing is implementing a communications campaign that is very specific to low-income families with children who frequently eat at fast-food restaurants,” said Jessica Collins, PHC president. “If you have to eat at McDonald’s, make a healthier choice for your kid. Don’t buy soda; get water or milk. Give up the fries and choose apple slices. It’s another strategy to educate parents.”

Menu of Programs

Since its inception, Harelick explained, Child Obesity180 has brought in public-health advocates, industry and government leaders, and other nonprofits to design, pilot, evaluate, and scale initiatives intended to reverse the trend of childhood obesity — a full 180 degrees, in other words — within one generation’s time.

“We have very aggressive goals,” she admitted.

To get there, the organization has taken a multi-pronged approach. Among its initiatives:

• Its Active Schools Acceleration Project aims to increase physical activity in U.S. schools by identifying innovative solutions and giving schools the tools and resources needed to replicate proven models. For example, the New Balance Foundation Billion Mile Race has challenged students to walk and run 1 billion miles. “Five thousand-plus schools are participating in the campaign, driving excitement and interest in walking and running programs,” Harelick said.

• The Healthy Kids Out of School initiative works with afterschool enrichment organizations, like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4H, and youth sports leagues, to promote three principles: drink right, move more, and snack smart.

“Kids are eating more junk food than they need and not moving as much as they should, even in youth sports,” she noted. “We found if we communicated these three simple principles, we could have an impact. It’s been very well-received by the CEOs of these organizations.

“What we have learned is, we have to tie into the organizations’ values and practices,” she went on. “Scouts are looking to develop future leaders, and to be a future leader, you have to develop a healthy lifestyle. We developed a special healthy-habits patch for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and developed a short online training for sports coaches.”

• The Restaurant Initiative, which is where “You’re the Mom” fits in, takes a three-pronged approach to reduce excess calorie consumption when children eat at restaurants: Increase consumer demand for healthier children’s meals, inform restaurant-industry leaders of the positive outcomes of increasing healthy menu offerings, and continue to conduct and disseminate original research.

• Another effort, the Breakfast Initiative — which promoted a healthy school breakfast and evaluated its impact on several key measures for children, including obesity prevention — completed its work in 2014.

That’s an area Square One knows something about, said Allard, who noted that many of ChildObesity180’s programs fit well into Square One’s mission of promoting well-being in children — not just academically, but physically and emotionally as well.

Linda Harelick

Linda Harelick says restaurant menus have gotten healthier and nutrition labeling has improved, but parents aren’t always aware of these changes.

“We know that kids who are well-nourished do well in school, so helping in a campaign like this, helping moms make healthy choices for their kids, is very much in alignment with our mission,” she explained. “Teaching kids to read, write, and be ready for kindergarten and academic success are very important, but we know there are so many more pieces than simply handing them a book.

“For many kids in our program,” she went on, “we provide two meals a day — breakfast, lunch, and two snacks — so we know they’re getting those meals with us, and we make sure they’re balanced and nutritious. But when they go home, they don’t always have those types of options. Access is the issue here, and budget is a challenge.”

Likewise, Partners for a Healthier Community, through the Live Well Springfield collective, has been trying to enhance school nutrition, from the preschool sector on up; make higher-quality foods, especially fruits and vegetables, more available in the city’s neighborhoods; and enhance urban agriculture and community gardens.

Live Well Springfield has also partnered with the city and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission on improving area riverwalks, and has a hand in the city’s Complete Streets program, which is putting more sidewalks and bike lanes on streets. “People have to move around, basically,” Collins said. “That’s a national best practice cities are trying to do.”

Food for Thought

Harelick welcomes the partnerships with organizations like PHC and Square One. “We call ourselves a multi-sector organization,” she told BusinessWest. “We believe childhood obesity is an issue that can only be solved if everyone participates.”

In the case of “You’re the Mom,” which admittedly takes a narrow focus, “we saw an opportunity to address the issue of kids consuming excess calories in restaurants and at the same time improve the nutritional quality of selected meals,” said Christina Economos, director of ChildObesity180. “Moms have an enormous amount of influence on their kids, but sometimes they don’t feel that way. We want to support them and remind them that making small changes can add up to a meaningful difference in their children’s health.”

Harelick has significant experience in several sectors that are part of ChildObesity180. After an early career as a registered dietitian, practicing in clinical and research settings at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s Hospital, she spent 17 years at Kraft Foods, overseeing strategic planning and marketing for iconic brands such as Maxwell House coffee and Post cereal. Upon leaving Kraft in 2008, she returned to academia to earn a doctorate in public health policy and management.

Having taken so many different views of the nutrition issue, Harelick is optimistic that her current organization’s goal — a full ‘180’ on childhood obesity — is within reach.

“We really believe that,” she said. “When we look at the problem of obesity, it seems very complex, but very interconnected. If you can influence one aspect of a child’s life, it has a wave effect on other aspects. And the more kids hear these messages, the greater the influence — it’s an echo effect.”

Beyond that, she said, “if we can impact culture in terms of the restaurant industry, convince them to offer lower-calorie foods, more nutritional quality, they’ll become societal norms for kids. It will become the norm to drink water on the basketball court, baseball field, or restaurant.”

Leaders at Square One — which, beyond its emphasis on healthy meals, offers an after-school physical fitness program called LAUNCH — say the work of ChildObesity180, and its new campaign, are effective complements to what’s already happening locally. “Our LAUNCH program is a health and wellness program for kids,” Allard said, “teaching them that fitness is fun, and that healthy eating can be fun and delicious.”

Just as Square One moves beyond talking about nutrition and fitness and actually provides opportunities for both, so Partners for a Healthier Community continues working toward greater access to healthy foods in the so-called ‘food deserts’ that tend to plague cities.

“The campaign bolsters work we’ve been doing locally, which is create access for families,” Collins said. “We have to start somewhere. It has to be both educating families to make the right decisions and also providing them access; if you just educate people, they’ll turn around and say, ‘but there’s no place to buy something healthy.’ That’s why the other strategies are so critical.”

Still, Harelick said, change begins with education, and she’s confident “You’re the Mom” will prove impactful enough to become a nationwide call.

“By delivering these messages and then reinforcing these practices at home,” she said, “we can really have a snowball effect.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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