How a sidewalk can fight childhood obesity

  • Sun Apr 18th, 2010 10:32pm
  • News

By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer

It sounds so simple: Encouraging kids to walk or bike to school can improve their health and increase their fitness.

Lack of sidewalks and busy thoroughfares are barriers to keep that from happening.

That could change at several schools in Snohomish County later this year, where projects to develop safer routes to schools will be developed.

They’re part of a national effort to encourage students to walk or bike to school.

The projects will be funded through two-year federal grants totaling $40,000 to the Snohomish Health District. Part of the grant also will be used to improve access to nutritious foods at retail stores.

The safe routes to school projects could include steps such as posting walking routes to schools with special signs, training volunteers to accompany students on their walks to school, or having special vests or flags to alert drivers to nearby students, said Pam Wessel-Estes, program manager for the health district.

Schools with a high percentage of low-income students will be invited to participate, she said. Work on the projects will probably begin in the fall.

A health district employee will work with schools to map out walking and biking routes.

The projects are aimed at reducing chronic disease associated with children being overweight or obese, Wessel-Estes said.

About 10 percent of students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades are overweight, and about one-quarter do not get regular physical activity, according to a 2009 report by the Snohomish Health District.

“We’re still a society that is overweight, facing the many challenges of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and degenerative joint diseases, all consequences of our weight,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Things as simple as making it possible to walk and bike to school “sound simple but it makes a huge difference,” he said.

A project with a similar goal, to build sidewalks and designate bike lanes, is now underway in Marysville. Funded by the state Department of Transportation, it includes more than 1,700 feet of sidewalks near Liberty Elementary School and Marysville Middle School.

The second part of the health district’s grant will help fund projects to improve access to nutritious foods, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

Several neighborhood grocery stores will be asked to offer fresh produce on their shelves, Wessel-Estes said.

“We know access is really key to helping people get more nutritional food into their kitchen,” she said. “So if we can improve access by increasing farmers markets and the availability of fresh produce at these corner stores … then it does often happen that people will make healthier choices.”

The health district hopes to begin work on that project this summer.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.