The Skinny on a Weighty Issue

Kingston gets major grant to help battle childhood obesity



childhood obesityPhotograph by Gautier Willaume/Shutterstock

Ulster County’s biggest city is about to get smaller.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has selected Kingston to participate in its Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities initiative to combat childhood obesity, awarding a $360,000 grant to Cornell Cooperative Extension Ulster County to oversee operations.

While the initiative has a dietary component, “the purpose is to make environmental and policy changes,” says Kristen Wilson of CCEUC, the project director.

Four committees, comprised of community volunteers and members from partner organizations — which include the City of Kingston, the Kingston City School District, the Kingston Land Trust, the Community Heart Health Coalition, Gilmour Planning, the Rose Women’s Care Center, and the Ulster County Health and Planning departments — will focus on four primary areas. The Safe Routes to Schools and Parks Committee will work on mapping the various ways children get to school, pinpointing and eliminating dangerous stretches, whether the threat is from inadequate sidewalks, growling dogs, or street crime. The Complete Streets Committee will lobby the City of Kingston to implement a “complete street” policy — that is, a municipality where every roadway is designed to accommodate bicycles, public transportation vehicles, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. The Community and School Garden Committee will both plant food gardens on school grounds, and bring local fresh produce into the neighborhoods of Kingston. Finally, the Healthy After-School Snack Committee will endeavor to make nutritious snack alternatives readily available at and around the schools.

“We don’t want to be the food police,” says Wilson. “We want to make it easier for children to choose healthier options.”

The 41 cities chosen to participate in the initiative were selected based on several criteria: minority population, low-income population, and current rate of child obesity, among others. “Socioeconomic factors play into obesity,” Wilson explains. Statistically, “children who come from low-income homes and minorities are at a greater risk of becoming obese.”

The current rate of obesity was determined by a body-mass index study of first- and third-graders conducted by the Ulster County Department of Health, which found that almost 40 percent of Kingston’s students were either obese or dangerously close to being so.

While the grant has to be renewed each year, the indications are that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is here for the long haul — this initiative is part of its $500 million commitment to stem the country’s childhood obesity epidemic in five years. “Unlike most foundations, they are very involved in the actual project,” Wilson says.

So if you notice more Kingston kids walking to school this year, you’ll know why.

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