Programs improve food, beverage choices in targeted communities

May 11, 2011

Intense attention to the factors that cause obesity is paying off in low-income communities around the state, with schools, civic institutions and health care providers more focused on making it easier for people to make healthy choices in their lives, according to an evaluation of two programs released today.

But even though the changes seem to be altering peoples’ behavior, the programs so far have not produced their ultimate goal, a reduction in obesity. But the evaluators say it has not been long enough for the cultural changes that are taking place to show up as weight loss.

The evaluations were done on two programs begun in 2005 to change the food people eat, the beverages they drink and the amount of exercise they get, with a special emphasis on children. One of the programs, called Healthy Eating, Active Communities, focused on six places around the state. The other program focused on the Central Valley and was known as the Central Valley Regional Obesity Prevention Program.

“If you build it, they will come. That’s the lesson here,” said Marion Standish, director of The California Endowment’s Community Health Program, which oversaw the programs. “When communities clean up neighborhood parks or open school playgrounds on weekends, children get more exercise. When we open farmers’ markets in the middle of food deserts, families eat better.” (The California Endowment was also the initial funder of HealthyCal.org)

A major focus of the programs was to improve the quality of school food and beverages, and the evaluation showed that this goal was largely achieved. Junk food was sharply reduced and healthier foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, become more prevalent.

Not only were these choices being offered by schools, but students were buying them more often. And while the healthier choices were more expensive to provide, the increased sales meant that schools did better than break even after the switch. School revenue from food service increased by an average of 57 percent.

Surveys also showed that students who developed healthy eating habits at school took those habits home with them, drinking fewer sports drinks and sodas and eating french fies less often.

The communities that were part of the initiative also opened more Farmers Markets, and youth leaders who were part of the program became engaged with local governments on the issue of the proliferation of fast food outlets in their neighborhoods.

Two issues targeted by the programs were more stubborn to change: the amount of activity in physical education classes remained the same, and the food options offered by corner stores were not fundamentally changed.

To see the full evaluations, click here.

–Daniel Weintraub

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