By Camille Lavell

Obesity in children across the United States has increased at an alarming rate in the past few decades. Until recently, few preventative programs were available to put an end to the health condition that can potentially cause lifelong and even fatal illnesses in both children and adults.

camille_story3_chart First lady Michelle Obama has increased awareness across the nation about childhood obesity through a comprehensive initiative, Let’s Move!, which is dedicated to raising a healthier generation of kids. According to Let’s Move!, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled in the past three decades, and today, almost one in three children in the United States are overweight or obese.

In 2014 Rochester adopted the campaign, which encourages elementary schools to take action in the fight against childhood obesity through healthy lunch programs, appropriate recess and/or physical activity time, and working with other sectors of the community to provide healthy meal options for families during the summer months that school is not in session..

Around the same time that Rochester was declared a “Let’s Move!” city, Healthi Kids Coalition, a community-based organization that advocates for childhood obesity and overweight prevention, teamed up with a local not-for-profit organization, the Children’s Institute, to provide children with healthy, safe environments in the Rochester City School District. The Children’s Institute partners with local organizations to create programs that benefit the physical, mental and emotional health of children and their families based on assessment and research conducted by their team.

Melissa Weber, a senior information analyst at the Children’s Institute, stressed the importance of conducting a program evaluation before putting a program into place. As part of that, the organizations worked with parents in the Rochester City School District to learn what foods the children liked, what foods they disliked, and what could be done to make the food better.

The result? Free lunches that have the nutrition value to please parents, while maintaining the taste and appearance kids will enjoy.

“Many schools don’t realize how important the appearance of food is to a child,” said Weber. “If their meal looks bland they won’t want to eat it. But, if it’s filled with colors it appears fun and interesting and will spark their interest in trying a new food they may not have tried before.”

While this program is a step in the right direction towards creating healthy lifestyles for children while in school, there still remains the issue of how to address healthy choices while at home.

Healthi Kids created a strategy to increase physical activity and healthy food options in neighborhoods throughout the city, so children can learn healthy living both in and out of school.

“Since 2009, the number of students who walk to school has declined. We want to provide safer walking routes so children can walk or ride their bikes. Currently, only 13 percent of kids walk to school,” said Jenn Beideman, a Policy and Research Associate for Healthi Kids.

Healthi Kids asked parents how they think walkability can be improved.

“Our most frequently mentioned issue is the lack of crossing guards and updated cross walks. Other issues are broken and cracked sidewalks and buildings described as ‘scary’,” said Beideman