Older Adults Charging on Biking Trails

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senior man on road bike, looking at camera. Copy space

Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

Biking is trending on a tear across New York and older adults are leading the fit pack in cycling tours upstate. This trend now has New York State ranked third in the nation behind Vermont and Alaska as the state with the highest levels of bicycling and walking according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

For the last four years, participants in the 400 mile Cycling the Eerie Canal bike tour have numbered consistently at 500; well above the 75 participants the tour attracted in its first year according to Al Hastings, bike tour director of Parks & Trails New York . And while a fair number of families with children have been on the tour, it’s the growing number of 50-year-olds who have been fueling the growth.

“The average age of the cyclists is in the low fifties,” said Mr. Hastings who predicts aging boomers will help sustain interest in the tour over time. “People who are older have the time and the money to invest in this type of activity. Older people nowadays also tend to be more active, so it bodes well for cycling,” he said.

This increased interest in cycling is a positive development for New York. Research shows that states with the highest levels of bicycling and walking have the lowest levels of obesity, hypertension and diabetes and have the greatest percentage of adults who meet the recommended 30-plus minutes per day of physical activity.

While there are no exact statistics to reflect the current demand and interest in cycling in Upstate New York, Eric Ophardt, head of the NYSDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Section, said if the demand for maps of bike trails in New York State is anything to go by, cycling is trending high.

“The request for maps is huge,” said Mr. Ophardt. “I am getting more and more requests for materials from people in and out of the state.” Keep cycling New York!

In Niagara Falls City, All Classes are Active

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

After being hit with troubling rates of childhood obesity and watching the effects of a grueling academic schedule take its toll on elementary school children, the Health and Wellness Committee of the Niagara Falls City School District urged teachers to include physical activity in the curriculum for every class in 2009.

Now, three years later, the concept of playing while learning has become a hit.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how supportive the teachers were,” said Rocco Merino, assistant Principal of Harry F. Abate Elementary School and member of the City’s Health and Wellness Committee.

The recommendation was driven in part by concern over the obesity rates in Western New York and the need to keep students engaged. “Obesity was a part of it (the decision),” said Mr. Merino. “A lot of the data we have looked at for Western New York does point to childhood obesity being a huge issue.”

Kindergarten teacher Wendy Maggadino said while she was supportive of the recommendation, her first reaction to it was sheer intimidation.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I already had so many things to do during the school day; I didn’t know where I was going to find the time.”

But after some creative thinking, Ms. Maggadino developed a plan. She noticed that her students generally spent long periods on bathroom breaks and saw it as the perfect opportunity to encourage her students to come back to class quickly. Shortly after their lunch break and just before her Math class she introduced her students to Deskercise – a once a day classroom fitness series hosted by a character called Slim Goodbody. The series incorporates physical activity into subjects like history and geography. Now, Deskercise is like an essential vitamin.

“The kids are so motivated by it,” said Ms. Maggadino. “It gets the children to hurry up and do what they need to do to get back to class.”

“The day was so jam-packed with academics we needed to find something to break it,” added Mr. Merino. “The kids look forward to it. Just to do something to get them out of their seats. We try to tell the teachers to put themselves in their shoes.”

The initiative has been so successful at the Harry F. Abate Elementary School they have now decided to take their physical activity up a notch.

“We started a walking club about a month or so ago and it’s something the kids and teachers are excited about. I sent out an e-mail to the staff and within two days almost half of the teachers responded,” said Mr. Merino.

Recess for Success

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter April 2012

By Leonardo Blair

A trend in some schools to eliminate recess to meet increasingly demanding academic schedules is being challenged by new research. Children who engage in daily active recess, says the new data, tend to do better in class and are healthier.

Some advocates in New York are also concerned about the level of physical activity students are getting during recess and the effect it can have on obesity rates. “What we are encouraging schools to do is to make recess active but I think the schools are under such demands it makes it real tough,” said Thomas Hohensee, project coordinator at Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown, NY. “If we got many schools ensuring that students are a lot more active during recess, it would have some effect (on obesity rate),” he said.

More than eight in 10 principals reported in The State of Play: A Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess, that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement and two-thirds of them say students listen better after recess and are more focused in class. And seven-year-old New York City student, Amadin Collette agrees. He shudders to imagine what his school days would be like if he didn’t get to play at recess.

“If you don’t get a lot of energy out you’re gonna be hype [sic] the whole day,” he said. “I would feel tired if there was no recess.” For Amadin, recess is also more than just releasing energy. During play time, “I learn how to not overreact. I can think better about what I can do and make good choices,” he said.

In Recess Rules, Why the undervalued playtime may be America’s best investment for healthy kids and healthy schools, researchers note that recess represented the single largest opportunity for elementary school children between the first and sixth grades to engage in physical activity during the school day. Schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment and the lowest income levels are also most likely to have fewer minutes of recess or none at all.

A number of organizations have already taken note across the state and are working to ensure that students are active in schools. Healthi Kids, an initiative of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency and an advocate of active recess, successfully pushed for the School District in Rochester to put in place a policy which guarantees at least 20 minutes of daily supervised unstructured recess for students. The new policy is currently being piloted at two schools and will go districtwide in the fall.

PLAYWORKS, a national nonprofit organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to low-income schools at recess and throughout the entire school, began working to address this problem for a few schools in Brooklyn, New York just over a year ago.

“Principals saw recess as a chaotic time,” said Adeola Whitney, executive director of PLAYWORKS Greater Newark/Greater New York. “Students weren’t getting enough physical activity and that chaos was spilling over in the classroom. We mitigate a lot of that chaos by teaching them conflict resolution and getting them to spend more time on play and physical activity,” she said.

In just one year, they have already started seeing positive results. “I was just at PS 11 last month and both principals and teachers spoke about recess as a much more pleasant time for all and much of what the children are learning is carrying over into the classroom,” said Ms. Whitney.

Incentives for Food Retailers Deliver Fresh Food and Create Jobs

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter September 2012

By Perrin Braun

Inspired by Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), New York has been taking some bold moves in order to improve both the health and the economy of the state. Since launching in 2004, the FFFI has become a national model for increasing access to fresh foods in underserved communities. The program has provided funding for 88 fresh-food retail projects in 34 Pennsylvania counties. Not only did over half a million people gain improved access to healthy food, but more than 5,023 jobs were also created or preserved as a result of the program. Lesson learned: the investment of a supermarket in an urban setting had a significant impact on food access, employment, and earnings on a county level. You can read more about details of the FFFI impact assessments here.

Encouraged by the success in Pennsylvania, then-Governor David Paterson announced the creation of the New York Healthy Food/Healthy Communities Initiative in 2009, which sought to increase access to healthy food in New York’s underserved communities. The goal of the New York program was two-fold: 1) support the direct development of jobs in these communities, and 2) meet the financing needs of market operators who want to do business in underserved communities, but do not have access to financing through the conventional credit market.

The program grew quickly, thanks to an allocation of $10 million in the state’s budget, which was used to create a revolving loan fund to finance grocery store projects. By 2010, the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund was announced as a public-private partnership after Goldman Sachs Group, Inc committed another $20 million that would be put towards funding for for-profit, nonprofit, or cooperative food markets that are located in underserved areas across New York State.

The results of the program were overwhelmingly positive: since October 2010, more than $6,134,996 million in capital has been deployed through New York’s Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund. The investment has created, enhanced, or preserved 67,500 square feet of food retail space serving an estimated 24,000 people. It has also created or preserved 204 full-time equivalent permanent jobs and approximately 132 construction jobs .

John Gage, owner of Conklin Reliable Market, a second generation, family-run market that serves a low-to-moderate income area in Conklin, NY, was the first applicant to be approved for a grant from New York’s Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund. Thanks to the funding that he received, Gage used the money to add additional shelves to his fresh produce section, which resulted in a significant increase in the sale of fresh produce.

“Sales are up,” he announced happily. “Produce sales are up 10 percent more.” He pointed out, however, that while the State’s efforts were commendable, a lot more needs to be done to get people to eat healthier. “It’s all about education, not necessarily just providing access,” Gage said.

Aside from the Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund, New York State is taking many more proactive steps to increase residents’ access to healthy food. For instance, The New York State Healthy Food / Healthy Communities Initiative is an innovative program administered jointly by Empire State Development and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, which provides capital in the form of grants and loans to support the development of fresh food retailers in underserved urban and rural communities across New York State. The statewide program meets the financing needs of market operators that plan to operate in underserved communities where infrastructure costs and credit needs cannot be filled. Additionally, thanks to the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) Program in NYC, a permanent farmer’s market grant program and financial incentives for food markets to be green and energy efficient have been established. The FRESH Program has been providing zoning and financial incentives to property owners, developers, and grocery store operators in areas underserved by grocery stores since 2009.

Finally, in November 2011, NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” to Washington lawmakers. The legislation proposed an ambitious agenda that would significantly bolster efforts in New York and across the country to eliminate food deserts. $32 million was appropriated for fiscal year 2012 to fund food retail outlets in underserved communities in the U.S. This funding is intended to bolster nationwide efforts to remove barriers to access to fresh and healthy foods—especially in low-income communities and communities of color where food deserts are present. It will also help to revitalize communities by establishing healthy food retail and by creating and preserving quality jobs for local residents. Improving access to healthy food can benefit the economy!

When it Comes to Healthy Food Access, Are”Food Deserts” and Food Swamps” Really that Different?

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Originally published in The DASH-NY Newsletter September 2012

by Perrin Braun

The relationship between obesity and access to healthy foods has been complicated by recent studies that suggested food deserts are not an issue. The term “food desert” has been used by the media, economists, and policy-makers to describe communities that have limited access to healthy food outlets. The communities plagued by food deserts are often of color and typically low income. Many policy decisions and interventions—including Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign—have operated under the premise that addressing food deserts can help curb obesity in these communities. Enhancing the availability of healthy foods is now a national priority, but are we missing the mark if we are not simultaneously addressing the overabundance of unhealthy food in many of these communities?

The USDA currently defines a “food desert” as a “low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” One of the initial proposals to address the problem of food deserts was to add more food retail options to these neighborhoods. However, simply increasing the number of grocery stores in under-served communities is not a universal solution to decreasing the prevalence of hunger and chronic disease.

John Weidman, the Deputy Executive Director of Food Trust, argued in a recent New York Timesarticle that “not all grocery stores are equal,” meaning that every supermarket doesn’t necessarily stock fresh, affordable, and appealing produce. In fact, a 2006 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that the quality of the grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods may influence the BMI of residents. These studies give increasing credence to the idea that issues related to access need to be considered in conjunction with quality, pervasiveness of competing foods, and affordability as barriers to creating healthy eating behaviors.

In fact, current research has suggested that although some areas designated as food deserts may contain some healthy food options, they are so flooded with energy-dense, low-cost options that it undermines efforts to make healthy choices. Donald Rose and his colleagues were the first to name this concept “food swamps” in their 2009 study, Deserts in New Orleans? Illustrations of Urban Food Access and Implications for Policy. Several researchers propose that the focus on the food environment in these communities needs to be shifted from what they lack to draining the food swamps of what they have in abundance—namely, high-calorie foods that fuel obesity.

Does the “food swamp” vs. “food desert” debate address the complex economic and health needs of low-income neighborhoods? There is a substantial body of evidence demonstrating the existence of food deserts. At the same time, the latest observation is that low-income neighborhoods contain an overabundance of fast food establishments. So, it appears that food swamps and food deserts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For example, one can live in a county with no grocery stores for miles around, butplenty of fast food or quick service establishments nearby.

Therefore, it is important to consider both ease of access and lack of access when considering the main drivers of food choice in underserved neighborhoods. A 2009 USDA report notes that access to a supermarket or large grocery store is a problem for only a small percentage of U.S. households. It shows that while 23.5 million people live in areas more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store, only 11.5 million of them (or 4.1 percent of the U.S. population) are actually low-income. It has also been argued that you would be hard-pressed to find an urban community that has absolutely no access to fruits and vegetables, but what matters most is how much fresh produce costs in relation to energy-dense fast food options.

Food advertising is also a part of the problem, but determining its true impact will require further assessment. A 2010 study from the Rudd Center demonstrated that fast food marketers have been targeting children across a variety of media and in select restaurants that provide mostly unhealthy side dishes and drinks with kids’ meals. It also noted that children as young as two are viewing more advertisements for fast food than ever before.

So, what does this mean for the “food swamp” vs. “food desert” debate? Increasing access to healthy foods is part of the solution, but it is not a panacea. While it’s necessary to make affordable, nutritious, and appealing food options more readily available, it’s also important to work towards decreasing the prevalence of unhealthy foods. The healthy choice needs to be the easiest choice!