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Virginia communities take on childhood obesity

Ninety-four percent of Virginians support the need for 30 minutes of daily physical education in elementary and middle schools, according to a survey of more than 15,000 adults and young people by Y Street, a teen volunteer group. The Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, VFHY, reported the survey's results in conjunction with its third annual "Weight of the State" conference in Richmond, which drew more than 400 educators and community leaders committed to reducing childhood obesity on Thursday.

In Hampton Roads, almost one in four children between the ages of 12 and 17 are considered overweight or obese, as compared to the state's overall rate of 22 percent. This compares to more than one-third of adult Virginians who are overweight and an additional 25 percent who are obese. In the VFHY survey, more than one in five adults reported that they'd had no physical exercise in the past 30 days, while young people divided evenly between minimal or no activity and regular workouts.

In 2009, the state charged VFHY with tackling childhood obesity in addition to its work in reducing tobacco use among young people. Since then, the group has given out more than a million dollars in grant money to Healthy Community Action Teams distributed throughout the state. Recipients of the second round of biennial grants, 2012-14, include Eastern Virginia Medical School for outreach in Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore, Franklin County for a youth garden, and the Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community.

The grants are for the support and establishment of community coalitions to use best practices, as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine. "We give them a list of 80 best practices and each locality chooses," said Richard Foster, public affairs coordinator for the foundation. He cited examples such as building a playground, promoting farmers' markets, and education and outreach programs.

Conference keynote speaker, David Zinczenko, author of the NYT book series "Eat This, not That!" had a three-pronged message, built around knowledge, attitude and choice. "Children are less aware of healthy choices," he said in a phone interview. "They're more susceptible to advertising." But, he also noted that manufacturers typically don't provide sufficient information for people to make informed choices, and that people are easily fooled by the presence of a "health" term. As an example, he said, people are likely to think they're making a healthy choice when they choose the chicken "salad" sandwich over the meat loaf at Boston Market, even though it has double the calories.

Zinczenko has worked on curriculums for nutrition education with New York schools and thinks schools can do more. "There's a lot of emphasis on spelling," he said. "I'd love to see a nutrition bee." He also emphasized the need to introduce an element of fun when working with children.

"We're accelerating progress in obesity prevention," said Heidi Hertz, prevention coordinator for VFHY, by concentrating on getting out a consistent message in the schools and the neighborhoods.

For more information on VFHY and available grants, go to

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