Change agents

Kingston environmental educator Julie Noble conducts a maple-sugaring workshop at the Forsyth Nature Center. (photo by Phyllis McCabe

For community organizers, tackling childhood obesity and other results of unhealthy habits is a David-and-Goliath kind of a fight. The marketing of junk food to kids is supported by powerful forces. The computer has replaced the playground as the place where millions of kids spend their time, and America’s ubiquitous car culture make the streets unsafe for children who do want to ride their bikes. The problem of overweight kids, which threatens to reverse the long trend in which each generation outlived the one before it, is a national issue that reverberates locally. A quarter of the kids in Ulster County are overweight.

Healthy Kingston for Kids (HKK), a four-year initiative coordinated by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and funded by a $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has devised a multi-pronged approach that addresses the multiple causes of the problem, from the unsafe streets that prevent kids from walking to school to the cultural disconnect kids have with fresh, locally grown food.

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HKK is organized into four committees: Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets, School and Community Gardens, and Healthy After-School Snacks. The effort is enhanced by partnerships with at least a dozen organizations, including the Kingston schools and the city government.

Its achievements three years into the project are modest measured against its ambitious goals. Healthy Kingston for Kids is seeking to creating a framework for healthier living.

The community gardens program has already resulted in tangible improvements to the urban environment. But most of the initiatives are longer-term in scope. Meaningful results have been elusive. Progress has been slow.

“We’ve learned changing overall environmental policy systems to reverse obesity takes a really long time,” said project director Kristin Wilson. “We’re really just getting started. We have gotten some new policies passed at the municipal level and are working on school-district policies. Getting a policy passed doesn’t mean that people will follow it. It’s a slow haul.”

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