EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 5, 2013

Lawrence starts program to fight obesity

By Yadira Betances
ybetances@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — Peter Blanchette cited some disturbing statistics about health in the city yesterday.

In Lawrence, close to 45 percent of children and about 69 percent of adults are overweight or obese, said Blanchette, agent to the city’s Board of Health, which puts them at a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, and low self-esteem. These problems costs Massachusetts $1.8 billion in medical care, he said.

The bad news was followed by good tidings. Mayor William Lantigua, members of the Mayor’s Health Task Force, Board of Health and local agencies implemented a seven page Healthy Active Living Resolution during the farmer’s market at Campagnone Common.

“Being healthy is not about losing weight and looking good,” Lantigua said. “It’s about living well and feeling good.” For his part, the mayor said he tries to eat healthy. Although he does not have an exercise plan, he walks as much as possible and uses the treadmill at home whenever he can.

Making fresh fruits and vegetables accessible to residents and encouraging them to exercise was the consensus of the group.

Vilma Lora, coordinator of the Mayor’s Health Task Force said in the past agencies were offering programs aimed at combating obesity and its health related illnesses. The Healthy Active Living Resolution brings it all together.

“We have to make the community we live in a healthy one,” Lora said. “But it doesn’t just have to rely on us, people can join a gym, get support from their relatives and people they know. We will be coordinating and working collectively.”

Senior Center director Martha Velez said they offer a basic exercise class daily at 8:30 a.m. attended by 70 to 80 members. The center also hosts mambo fitness, Caribbean rhythm and zumba classes for people 18 and older in the afternoon.

“Learning to eat healthy and nutritious meals and keeping active are an essential parts of a long life,” Velez said.

Attendance at the farmers’ market on Wednesday at the Common has seen an increase of up to 700 people, said Rosa Pina who coordinates the market for Groundwork Lawrence. She credits the change of location from Pemberton Way to the corner of Jackson and Haverhill streets.

“We get more exposure in the common and people have better access to the market. Sales have definitely increased,” she said.

Among the priorities outlined in the resolution are improving recreational areas of the city to promote physical activity; increasing access to affordable, healthy foods and creating a municipal employee wellness program. The health task force and city departments need to submit their proposals to Lantigua within the year.

Bruce Hathaway, coordinator of Healthier Communities Initiatives for YMCA of the USA flew to Lawrence from Chicago for its launching.

“This is a representation of what is happening across the country,” Hathaway said. “I’m very impressed with what’s going on here. It shows the pride that’s here in the city.”

In addition to meeting the need for funds, Hathaway said the city has a network of agencies working together to combat the obesity problem.

“In this community, it was clear that they want to work in combating this problem,” Hathaway said, as the reason why Lawrence received the grant. “It’s easy to focus on the negative, but it’s obvious they are doing a lot of work here already.”

Money for the program comes from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s REACH, an acronym for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health. The CDC works with the national YMCA to identify communities with less than 500,000 residents who at least half percent are racial or ethnic minorities and low-income families. Lawrence’s grant is $150,000 over two years and the REACH program will be coached by the Merrimack Valley YMCA and Groundwork Lawrence. The collaboration also includes Mayor William Lantigua’s office, the Lawrence Board of Health, Lawrence General and Holy Family Hospitals.

The REACH grant has allowed the health task force to establish a public awareness campaign called SALSA, which stands up for Supporting Active Life Styles for All. It promotes healthy standards of living and educating residents about the importance of food and exercise.

“I’m really excited about it because it has all the right components to fight obesity,” said Dr. Kara Keating Bench, an intern at Lawrence General Hospital. “It is not just an individual, but everybody working together.”

“Lawrence is a perfect place to do it. This can be a model,” she said.

Suffering from diabetes, heart condition and being overweight, Maria Taveras knows the importance of eating healthy and exercising both body and mind.

“Even if you are plagued by illnesses, they are both vital to living a longer life,” said Taveras as she grabbed cucumbers, tomatoes and peaches at the farmer’s market. “You can either sit and complain about all the aches and pains or throw your worries into the wind, laugh, eat well and exercise. That is why I chose the latter.”