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Local community using new approach to combat obesity

American children are fatter than ever. The latest government figures reveal more than one-third of kids in the U.S. are overweight, and nearly 17 percent are obese.

One community in San Diego County is taking a unique approach to combating the problem. And it all starts with a new park. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

There's nothing like an early morning basketball game to get the blood flowing.

Today's contest in west Chula Vista pits two teams made up of some old hands and a sprinkling of youngsters. Fourteen-year-old Stephanie Mendoza shows some slick moves on the court. As her teammates jostle for position, she launches a jump shot.

Mendoza says she too used have to go way out to Eastlake or Bonita to shoot some hoops. Now she just has to come down the street.

Stephanie Mendoza: "I really like it, it's starting to pay off, cause before we had to go really far, and now all we have to do is come really, close, practice my shots and everything.

This used to be a rundown vacant lot that was slated for development. Then some local mothers came up with the idea of turning it into a park.

Patricia Osuna spearheaded the effort.

Patricia Osuna: "It wasn't easy, because our group was made up of a bunch of mothers, all volunteers. And we went to city hall to tell them we would like to have a park. And they looked at us and said, well, who are you?"

Osuna says it took a lot of hard work to get this idea off the ground.

Osuna: "For five years we're out here knocking on doors, building up the support so that city officials would listen to us. Finally, we did it, we won.

Today this former eyesore is the brand spanking new five-acre park. Called Harborside, it's the first park to be built in West Chula Vista in 25 years.

And it's the cornerstone of community-wide strategy to reduce childhood obesity.
Chula Vista Mayor Stephen Padilla explains.

Stephen Padilla: "Everything you do in a community, from how you design buildings and parks and sidewalks, and how you connect people in their communities, has an impact on how they behave. So if you design things in such a way that encourage people to be more active, it's not just a nice thing, and it's not just a pretty design, but you're impacting their health."

Chula Vista is one of six cities statewide that's taking part in this new approach to battling the bulge. Funded by the California Endowment, the idea is to change schools and neighborhoods to improve access to healthy eating and physical activity.

The effort is a collaboration between the local school district, community groups, and the public health department.

Rene Santiago is a deputy director of San Diego County's Health and Human Services agency.

Rene Santiago: "I think after 20, 30 years after telling people we need to eat right and exercise right, we're learning that it's only 15, 20 percent of the people are actually changing the behavior. So we're focusing now in terms of the environmental approach, the built environment. How can you actually help facilitate people making the right choices.

Twelve-year-old Garret McVey describes his favorite choice of play equipment in the park.

Garret McVey: "I don't really know what it is, but a pipe that's like twisted into an 'S' with an extra arm. And there's two handles that spin sort of like pedals and then there's the same thing for the feet. And you gotta do it at the same time. It's kinda hard.

This park should help with the exercise part of the equation. But when it comes to healthy eating, that's another matter.

I'm standing on the corner of Palomar and Broadway in West Chula Vista, just a few blocks away from the new park. And let me tell you the food choices I see. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack in the Box, a donut shop. I mean, give me a break.

Rene Santiago: "Well, you know, there's healthy choices."

The County's Rene Santiago says he hopes to engage local restaurants in the environmental re-design effort. Santiago believes in a few years, this new approach to reducing childhood obesity should yield some tangible results.

Children in Chula Vista could certainly stand to benefit. After all, this area has one of the worst childhood obesity rates in California. Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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