Mass. launches new anti-obesity efforts

Eduardo A. de Oliveira | 1/14/2009, 4:40 a.m.

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa A. Wong, who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has recently promoted a walking tour in her city, attracting hundreds of people.

“Later we realized that the [combined] mileage count [of walkers] would be enough to walk from Fitchburg to San Francisco,” said Wong.

In Fitchburg, where 40 percent of the city’s 40,000 population are minorities, the walking program was initiated by city and nonprofit employees as a 12-day pilot program.

“I come from an Asian culture, where health is not a model of going to the gym and dieting,” said Wong. “We think a little more holistically about mind and body. I see a lot of stress [tied to] eating, [which is] creating health problems.”

Massachusetts’ plan to combat obesity has not reached the mind-and-body level yet. But it is benefiting all the state’s cities and towns, as well as some employers.

The state’s mayors each will receive funding, from a pool of money that now totals nearly $750,000, to help fight obesity or overweight of their residents. Specifically, the money will be used for local improvements, such as healthier meals in schools and having more farmers’ markets or supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods.

In addition, the $750,000 pool will go towards a state-sponsored “Workplace Wellness” program for employers, to create worksites that encourage healthy behaviors to reduce health insurance costs.

Bigby, the state’s health secretary, noted at the program’s press launch that obesity places individuals at higher risk for serious health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.

“These conditions place enormous burdens on our residents and on our health care system, so it makes sense for us to focus on prevention,” Bigby said.

Over the past two decades, Massachusetts has seen a 47 percent increase in overweight, compared to a national increase of 40 percent.

“This [Mass in Motion] initiative is an example of a community-based effort focused on helping low-income neighborhoods,” said Philip O. González, director of grantmaking at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts.* “Especially with such a high rate of [racial and income] disparities [in health], the state shows it knows that their health is … important.”

* Both the MetroWest Community Health Care Foundation and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts are sponsors of the EthnicNEWz.org health beat, covered by Eduardo A. de Oliveira.