According to reports released last fall, Philadelphia is the only city that has documented a decrease of obesity among children of color who are at greatest risk of being severely overweight. The overall obesity rate among schoolchildren in Philadelphia fell 4.7 percent between 2006 and 2010. The largest declines were registered among African-American boys, 7.6 percent, and Hispanic girls, 7.4 percent.
National health advocates hail the city for closing the "disparities gap" at a time when income inequality continues to grow.
Last week, Dr. Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, explained the anti-obesity efforts at a Washington, D.C., conference sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association. They included partnerships between the city and community groups, and included:
* Providing nutrition education to students in the 200 city schools with the highest rates of poverty starting in 1999.
* Removing sugary drinks from school vending machines in 2004 and setting nutritional standards for vending-machine snacks.
* Removing all deep fryers from school kitchens and shifting from 2 percent to 1 percent milk.
* Attracting supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods, like Fresh Grocer in North Philadelphia and ShopRite in Parkside, using state and private dollars.
* Passing a trans-fat ban and menu-labeling law in 2007.
* Implementing physical-activity standards for after-school recreation programs.
Some of these policies were ridiculed and some were vehemently resisted, but each has apparently contributed to the beginning of what advocates hope will be an eventual reversal in obesity rates.
The effort continues. Recently, the city initiated a unique program by partnering with the Chinese Restaurant Association to reduce the amount of sodium in 200 Chinese takeout restaurants. The restaurants tend to be concentrated in African-American and Hispanic communities, where high blood pressure is a scourge. After nine months, a 20 percent drop in sodium content was measured in two of the most popular dishes - shrimp lo mein and chicken with broccoli.
That's how small-bore some initiatives can be. But when taken together, they can have a pronounced impact.
The important lesson here: Change is possible. If Philadelphia can lead the way on childhood obesity, we can do the same for even bigger problems like poverty.