Junk Food Islands: Transforming Communities to Combat Childhood Obesity

February 11, 2008

by Guillermo Gomez, HSC Chicago Director

A recent article published in the Robert Wood Johnson Childhood Obesity Digest suggests that one-third of schools in the nation have at least one fast food restaurant or convenience store within walking distance. The researchers found that schools in low-income neighborhoods had more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than those in higher income neighborhoods.

Just as we have food deserts in lower socio-economic neighborhoods, we also have junk food islands with high concentrations of fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Clearly, this has an impact on health and wellness efforts in school. As the researchers write, “this study suggests that curbing obesity in adolescents will require addressing the food environment surrounding schools as well as within schools.”

Healthy Schools Campaign and Parents United for Healthy Schools, a coalition we brought together to make healthy changes at schools in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods, work to combat childhood obesity in part by creating school wellness teams and working with parents to promote healthy lifestyles at home and at schools.

As this research shows, it appears that if we want to have any significant impact in fighting the obesity epidemic, then we need to address the community environment as well as the school and home environments.  If we start at home by creating a healthy lifestyle and take that message to schools, we also have to look at the community surrounding the school.

In Parents United for Healthy Schools work in Chicago’s Little Village, for example, we began by engaging parents in the healthy lifestyles message. These parents then took the message to schools, forming school wellness teams and advocating for healthy food and increased physical activity.

But the parents also took the message to the community, talking with restaurant owners about using healthier oils (and less of it) and sharing their recipe for healthier tamales with a popular local caterer. They worked with other parents to plant backyard gardens that provide fresh vegetables, started walking clubs, and have essentially made the wellness message part of the fabric of a community.

This creates an environment in which the community is more receptive to healthy changes at school and, importantly, where children receive the same wellness messages from teachers, parents and the adults in their neighborhood.

If we are to succeed in fighting obesity in communities with “junk food islands,” then we must develop a strategy to address the junk food – and the messages – that surround our  schools.