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Monday, July 23, 2012

Somerville, Mass. Mayor: ‘This Is Not About Losing Weight, It’s About How We Live’

In the last decade, once-gritty Somerville, Massachusetts, known for its clapboard homes, car repair shops, and the infamous Winter Hill gang, has transformed. Start-ups are popping up next to junk yards, and The Utne Reader calls the heart of Somerville, Davis Square, one of the hippest places in the country. And something else is happening to Somerville: Using grants from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the city has embarked on an ambitious push against childhood obesity. Mayor Joseph Curtatone spoke with Here & Now’s Robin Young in a conversation that’s excerpted below.

You started “Shape Up Somerville” ten years ago to fight child obesity. How bad was it?

When I took office in 2004, Tufts University showed me data of our first and third graders, and it showed that more than 40 percent of our children were either obese or at risk of being obese… more than the national trend. And what that spoke to me is how we approach the systems of a community —  the environmental policy, the public safety policy, the built environment, the recreation, your food policies.

We know you now have the thinking that everything that happens in Somerville — from sidewalks to programs — has to take children’s health into consideration. So give us an example.

For instance, before “Shape Up Somerville,” almost all of [school] food was already pre-processed. So you either opened it, heated it in a microwave, or it was frozen. Now, the majority is prepared onsite. More whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables all day long.

We also focused on aspects of the built environment, making Somerville appropriate for active living. So making our streets more walkable, focusing on the most dangerous intersections and putting in place pedestrian safety and traffic mitigation measures, revamping our recreation program. And we’ve taken the “Shape Up Somerville” approach and applied it to every program and policy in the cit,y because this is not about losing weight, this is about how we live.

So more bike lanes, more bike corrals for parking bicycles. But what else? Lets say you’re building a bridge, what do you do, make sure it has a sidewalk?

Anytime we build a major roadway, we look to incorporate the aspects of smart-streets — bike lanes, share-roads, bump-outs. We’re looking long range to bring in more light rail with the green line expansion. We’ve built, or are in the process of building or designing almost 30 new parks, playgrounds, recreation spaces, community gardens. We’re making access to good and wholesome affordable food easier.

You’ve got a very strong Local First organization in Somerville, and you’ve got a lot of restaurants signing on. We understand 40 out of the 200 city restaurants have “healthy choice” menus. What’s happening at the farmers markets?

The farmers markets have been increasingly popular. We’ve always had one in Davis Square, but we [have] a new farmers market in Union Square, [with] the state’s first-ever winter’s farmers market at the armory.

Also, we have our first mobile farmers market bringing produce into the communities that can’t access them. What we’ve found was, different parts of our community that are under served, where people work two jobs to support their families, don’t have the transportation. Those people weren’t going to those markets, so we’re bringing mobile markets to our senior centers, to our housing developments, and they’re increasingly popular.

Two-thirds of the kids in your schools come from poor families that are on food stamps or they receive free or reduced-price school lunches. And now food stamps are accepted at farmers markets and a dollar gets you two dollars worth of food vouchers. Are you seeing more low income residents go to the farmers markets because of that?

We are seeing more go to farmers markets, also our mobile market has exceeded all expectations.

We understand that parking spots were converted from parallel parking to angled parking so that car doors wouldn’t open in bike lanes. Can you give me some more specifics about what the city has done?

We use a different type of paint [on crosswalks] that is more reflective and visible to make it safer to cross the street. How we police our streets is really changing. If our streets are safe, people will want to let their children out and be more free-range running around the streets and being more active.

What are you seeing in results? We understand that after three years, Tufts tested eight-year-olds, and they found that they had on average a pound less in weight gain than kids in other communities. But since then it’s been hard to put a finger on this because the studies are ongoing . Do you have a sense that you’re getting something for the money you’ve invested in this?

Absolutely. And here’s what we know: we’ve seen from our heath surveys that more people, in our teens especially, are choosing more healthier lifestyles and activities – more physical activities. We’re getting great reviews from our food policies in our schools.

There was a song in the 70s about Somerville, David Mish lovingly mocked the town. It’s a song about how nothing ever really happens there, except maybe the leaves growing on the trees. Well, boy, Somerville has come a long way.

It has. It’s always been a great city. But what we’re proud of now is we learned from our mistakes in the past, from 40-50 year ago. I’ve always say this: – and I believe in the greatness of the American city – you can bring a community or city down overnight, it’ll take a generation or more to bring it back. We’re well on our way.

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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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