For the past several months, representatives of the health, recreation, civic, faith and education communities in Evanston have met regularly to come up with ways to address childhood obesity.

At their March meeting, several members of the group, called Pioneering Healthier Communities-Evanston (PHC-E), reported on their efforts.

“This is a shared mission,” said Bill Geiger, CEO of the McGaw Y. One of the goals of PHC is to work toward changing the “policies, systems and environment” here that contribute to childhood obesity. “Adults and kids both get very mixed messages [about eating right] that impact our kids in very negative ways. [We need to see if there] is something we can do to change the outcome that our systems, policies and environment are having on our kids,” he added.

Tim Sanborn, M.D., of NorthShore University HealthSystem, said more than 20 percent of children in Illinois are obese, and the problem is “more prevalent in the black and Hispanic communities. … Without intervention, youth of today will live less healthy, and probably shorter, lives than their parents.”

Evonda Thomas of the City’s health department said the focus will be on “empathy” rather than labeling. Obesity, she said is the by-product of physical inactivity and poor nutrition. She said one suggestion had been to “get all the pop out of Evanston,” but one response questioned how adults would react to that proposal. “So we don’t want to create any policies that adults won’t adopt,” she said.

Sandra Hill said the group plans outreach far and deep into the community. “We are asking all people to consider joining us in the effort.”

The group will look even more closely at policies, systems and environment. PHC representatives said they hope to ensure that children in “coordinated day care [such as family day-care and early childhood centers] have at least one hour of physical activity each day and to promote breastfeeding of children under 2 years. They would like to obtain the height and weight of children ages 2-5 so as to be able to calculate their body mass index (BMI, a way to measure obesity). To ensure sustainability of the program, they will look to fundraising, marketing and networking, representatives of PHC said.

Mark Schroeder of NorthShore University HealthSystem said he felt the community can “create lasting change. This is a seminal issue. … Look how we impacted smoking.”

Pioneering Healthier Communities

Pioneering Healthier Communities-Evanston is part of the YMCA’s statewide Pioneering Healthier Communities initiatives. PHC-E began last year with funding from the YMCA of the USA, which is helping to implement this program in 200 communities across the county.

The Evanston PHC says it will work in partnership with families and early childhood programs to fulfill its mission: “to strive to reduce health disparities by creating a healthier environment through collaboration with all community resources. This partnership will specifically focus on nutrition, healthy eating, and physical activity among low-income Evanston families, pregnant women, and children birth to 5 years of age attending early care and education programs.”

Organizations represented in PHC-E are Childcare Network of Evanston,  Second Baptist Church of Evanston,  McGaw YMCA, Youth Organizations Umbrella, Inc., Northwestern University, Evanston/Skokie District 65, Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, Evanston Community Foundation, St. Francis Hospital and NorthShore University HealthSystem.