Northern Manhattan is a little bit healthier now, thanks to an initiative called CHALK from New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center. According to a report by Fitnessgram, the neighborhood’s rate of childhood obesity was 47 percent in 2010.
“Washington Heights is primarily a Dominican and Mexican community, and has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in New York City,” explains Alexa Squillaro, acting program manager of CHALK.
CHALK, or Choosing Healthy and Active Lifestyles for Kids, is focused on reducing childhood obesity and creating healthy environments for school-aged children primarily in schools, the medical center and in the community. Currently, the program operates mainly in the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods of Manhattan.
The bulk of CHALK’s programming is structured around their 10 Healthy Habits, which include physical activity and healthy eating goals adapted from the Strang Center for Cancer Prevention’s "Healthy Children Healthy Futures" program.
At New York-Presbyterian Hospital, CHALK helps in outpatient clinics to screen children for these habits during well-child visits and then incorporates the data into medical records. To compile this information, practitioners ask children questions such as, “How many hours of screen time do you have daily,” or “How many glasses of soda and juice do you have per day.”
In schools, CHALK works on a variety of programs including nutrition curriculum and creating newsletters that are customized to the school environment. They also encourage schools to update their menu to meet all the requirements of national school food standards. Alexa says that in some cases, this means “getting creative about what we do in what schools” due to differing resources. Additionally, they work to create wellness councils in schools that contribute to programming.
CHALK has also created a youth task force comprised of nine high school students. The members of this task force take part in an eight-week “boot camp.” During this time, the students get to work at CHALK’s booth at the GrowNYC Greenmarket helping with health education. The students also attend local seminars and culminate their experience with an end-of-summer project, for which they held a conference about how to teach the 10 Healthy Habits to kids.
In the community, CHALK engages local businesses including bodegas, pharmacies and fitness centers to promote their healthy habits. These local partners also help distribute CHALK’s monthly newsletter and sometimes even host workshops or programming.
Local restaurants are getting involved by working with CHALK to create “viva la vida” (live your life) specials based on My Plate Planner that are priced comparably with other menu items.
Another pilot program the group has tested with their community partners is an incentive program called SnackFresh. When students buy healthy snacks outside of school, they earn some sort of in-school reward like extra recess. CHALK hopes to expand this program in the coming year.
For all the success CHALK is having now, it hasn’t been an easy road. “When we started in 2005, it was just the beginning of the childhood obesity epidemic. We were promoting something at a time when not as many people were as educated about the issue, so many community members didn’t understand the need for change,” Alexa says. But that’s changing for the better, she notes. “Now, I can see how everyone that we encounter understands the necessity and wants to be a part of the change.”
Overall, Alexa says that the group’s programs have been well received by the neighborhood. Because of the demographic makeup of the neighborhood, all materials are created in both English and Spanish so they are accessible to nearly everyone.
“Families are excited because we’re providing all these services for free, and exercise classes in schools are open to the community. They’re excited because not only are they becoming educated, they’re also seeing there is an outlet for behavior change.”
Any school, community or medical center interested in utilizing CHALK’s programming can download a free toolkit on their website.