Fighting childhood obesity in Philly: How we got where we are today

Today, Philadelphia has one of the nation’s largest citywide networks of farmers’ markets in low-income communities. But this thriving program, operated for the last 20 years  by The Food Trust, had a bumpy road to success. Early on, several of our markets failed due to lack of shoppers or farmers–or both.

These failures were often daunting. There were many times when I wondered if, given the complexity of our food environment and the many elements that influence what we may choose to eat on any given day, it was even possible to reverse the decades-long trends that have led to soaring childhood obesity rates.

Pragmatic strategies to support farmers and shoppers

In the end, however, those early obstacles shaped an approach that has helped us achieve significant progress toward providing residents of Philadelphia’s low-income neighborhoods with access to healthy foods. They forced us to reevaluate how we approached farmers’ markets in high-need communities, and taught us practical tactics for supporting farmers and serving customers. For example:

  • We now promote and accept SNAP and other food assistance benefits at our markets, which makes fresh food affordable for low-income residents (and help to educate them about healthy eating ) and boosts sales for farmers.
  • We provide farmers with training and support, helping them to gear their products to the culturally diverse communities we serve, and educating them on how to accept SNAP and other benefits that can be redeemed at markets.
  • We staff our markets with trained on-site managers, who help ensure that both customers and farmers have a great experience.

A 5 percent, citywide drop in childhood obesity rates

What kind of difference have these strategies made? Twenty years ago, our organization began with one farm stand in a neighborhood where it was hard to find fresh produce. There were neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia where residents couldn’t easily buy healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.  Last year, an estimated 400,000 people visited our network of farmers’ markets, and over the last three years, food stamp sales have risen by more than 300 percent at our ten markets in the lowest income areas.

Moreover, the city itself has recently documented real progress in fighting obesity, particularly among kids: A recent study by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health is one of the first studies showing a citywide reversal of one of the country’s most troubling obesity trends. It found that obesity rates among Philadelphia school children decreased by 5 percent between 2006 and 2010. (Moreover, Philadelphia is one of the few cities shown to have made “marked reduction among the [African American and Hispanic] youths historically at greatest risk for obesity.”)

Community partnership makes the difference: Parents, politicians, store owners, farmers and more

To us, these findings suggests that one critical key to obesity prevention is a comprehensive approach that combines nutrition education and increased access to healthy foods.  This progress required participation from hundreds of partners, including the incredible leadership of Mayor Michael Nutter.

In twelve years at The Food Trust I have worked with parents, schools, grocers, farmers, and policymakers to make healthy food affordable and accessible for everyone. Together, we’ve brought supermarkets to communities that have gone decades without one. We’ve helped corner store owners like Catalina Morrell-Hunter (part of The Food Trust’s Healthy Corner Store Network) introduce fresh produce, low-fat dairy and whole grains, and brought farmers’ markets to low-income communities.  We’ve taken soda and junk food out of Philadelphia schools, and we’ve taught students to appreciate foods like apples and cherry tomatoes.

The road has been hard, but the data on childhood obesity are clear –  by focusing on comprehensive local initiatives, we’ve begun moving in the right direction in Philly, and in other cities and neighborhoods throughout the country.

Yael Lehmann is Executive Director of The Food Trust. As part of its effort to ensure that everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food, the Food Trust has launched a new web portal, www.healthyfoodaccess.org,  with its partners, PolicyLink and The Reinvestment Fund. The portal is designed to help community members find practical ways to engage with local businesses, school leaders, policymakers and families to enhance public health.