Tending to the child obesity problem

October 26, 2012

By Ronald Fong, M.D., M.P.H

I was recently part of a UC Davis group that teleconferenced with Meron Agonafer, staff member for Assemblyman Isadore Hall, II [52nd District]. His office was concerned that approximately half of the children in the district are either overweight or obese. Initially, we examined legislative efforts outside of California, such as New York’s limit on soda sizes. However, we recognized the potential resistance to initiating additional bills in an election year. Rachel Hollander, a Research Fellow in our group, offered a non-legislative alternative. She proposed employing community gardens as a strategy to address pediatric obesity.

Sacramento and other cities have adopted ordinances in which groups may petition to cultivate vacant lots. The lot owner retains the right to terminate the gardens once development begins. We thought this might work in the 52nd District, which is located in south central Los Angeles.

My connection to the district stems from my family medicine residency training at the King/Drew Medical Center. At that time over twenty years ago, gang violence was the chief health concern for the area. The violence remains, but its impact has extended beyond immediate assaults. The violence has rendered the streets unsafe for routine physical activity and non-motorized travel. Parents report extremely limited access to safe playgrounds. This landscape diminishes opportunities for exercise and fitness.

Currently, there are no local ordinances in District 52 for community gardens. However, we wanted to frame community gardens as an invitation, not an intrusion. Instead of concentrating efforts to enact legislation, we proposed promoting community gardens to families and local business owners as a means to increase: fresh produce availability to urban populations, physical activity through gardening, property value of vacant lots by enhancing foot traffic, and social capital by bringing together a wide spectrum of neighborhood stakeholders to create a sustainable platform for increased health.

Four hundred miles separate UC Davis from the south central Los Angeles. Yet, our mission as a public institution of high learning is not limited by physical distance. Our stewardship of public resources demands viewing communities beyond geographic boundaries and seeing those in need and who serve others as neighbors. We can make the local global and the global local.

Ronald Fong is Director, Family Medicine Residency Network, a the UC Davis Department of Family and Community Medicine.

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