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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Federal grant helps Chicago fight childhood obesity

Cassandra West

By Susan Richardson

Long before First Lady Michelle Obama put childhood obesity in the national spotlight, the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children was working to combat this health epidemic.  Last week, the federal government recognized the organization’s work when it announced that it had awarded nearly $6 million to the Consortium, which partnered with the City of Chicago Public Health Department to apply for the funds.

The award is part of $31 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services to reduce obesity and smoking; the money comes from the new national health care law. 

“It’s a vote of confidence,” said Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, founder and medical and research director of the Consortium, which targets children up to 5 years old.  

Located at Children’s Memorial Hospital, the Consortium was founded eight years ago. Since then, the group has grown to include nearly 1000 organizations, mostly from Chicago. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to addressing obesity, enlisting schools, community groups, health professionals, parks officials and others. 

“There is no single reason for childhood obesity,” Christoffel said. “It was a perfect storm where there were changes all in the wrong direction: a car for every family, cheaper food, larger portions … you can go on and on.”

The Consortium also supports special obesity prevention programs in neighborhoods such as Pilsen, Englewood and Humboldt Park, low-income and communities of color where there is the greatest need for intervention. 

In the next month, the group will develop a plan for how to use the Health and Human Services funds. Under the grant criteria, the money must be used to create structures with "staying power," Christoffel said, and for efforts that focus on policy and environmental change. She said most of the money will go to community organizations working across the city; the Consortium will coordinate the efforts.

 In Chicago, obesity prevalence among children 3-7 years old is 22 percent, more than double that of US rates for similarly aged children, according to the Consortium. However, the prevalence of obesity among children entering local schools has decreased from 24 percent, or about 6,000 children, between 2004 and 2008.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC) suggest that obesity rates have stabilized nationwide, but health officials say policies and practices are not yet in place to reverse the epidemic -- and the rates are still staggering.  Seventeen percent of children and adolescents between the ages of 2-19 are obese – triple the rate of a generation ago, according to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). African-American and Latino children have the highest obesity rates.

Childhood obesity cost the nation upwards of $3 billion annually, the CDC reports, with children suffering from weight-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes. And obese children – those with a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex – are more likely to become obese adults.

A pediatrician who also has a Master's in Public Health, Christoffel has a long history of involvement in child nutrition, including founding the Nutrition Evaluation Clinic at Children’s Memorial in 1982.  “I’ve been taking care of overweight kids for a long time,” she said. “The severity got worse, and at an early age. And it became increasingly apparent to me that we were not going to take proper care of them or reduce the rising rate of obesity unless we adopted a comprehensive approach.”

The announcement by Health and Human Services comes within days of the publication of the premier issue of Childhood Obesity Journal, published bimonthly by Mary Ann Liebert in collaboration with the American Association of Diabetes Educators, American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and American Academy of Family Physicians.  The journal, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, reflects the growing national attention on childhood obesity.