In D.C., Where Kids Live Sets Tone for Weight-Loss Success

By Steve Hendrix and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Latrisha Avery knows losing weight could head off the diabetes that runs in her family. But the fifth-grader has a more immediate reason for her goal of losing 20 pounds before she starts middle school next year: So kids will stop calling her "King Kong."

Although many children in her neighborhood are overweight, Latrisha knows she stands out. At 12, she is almost 5-foot-7 and weighs 220 pounds, making her taller than most of her classmates and heavier than any.

"They pick on me all the time," she said in a quiet voice. "I let it go, but I do not need a bigger crowd of people talking about me. I do not need to be the heaviest girl in middle school."

And so Latrisha is working hard to become a smaller target. At a Boys and Girls Club in Southeast Washington, she spends four hours a week at a free fitness and nutrition program sponsored by the District's Project Health initiative. She runs in the gym and then learns about "sometimes foods" and "all-the-time foods." She has cut her visits to Popeyes Chicken to one a month and she has become a calorie counter who baffles her mother with talk of hydrogenated oils and trans fat. Latrisha has lost 15 pounds since beginning the program last fall.

"If I can lose about 20 more, that will put me back in the 100s," she said.

Latrisha is determined, but she is also a child of Ward 8, where a poor young African American trying to lose weight faces unique challenges. More than half the children in the ward are overweight or obese, according to Rand Corp.

Almost all the food choices in Latrisha's neighborhood are bad ones, with corner stores and takeout joints serving fatty calories through bulletproof glass windows. A 2007 study by the National Urban League found that 81 percent of the food vendors in Ward 8 were either convenience stores or fast-food outlets. Until a new Giant opened in December as the only full-service grocery in a ward of 70,000 residents, Latrisha's sole source of fresh produce was a bus ride away.

There was no playground near Latrisha's house on Brandywine Avenue SE. And because of drug dealing and gunfire, Latrisha's mother would let her play outside only when she could keep watch. Sixty percent of the residents live within two blocks of a public park, the Urban League study showed, but 56 percent of parents would not allow their children to play outdoors, mostly because of safety concerns.

When it comes to overcoming obesity, "there are some particular problems in D.C., where so many kids live in poverty," said James Weill, president of Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a Washington nutrition advocacy group. "They have fewer resources for physical education in school and in the neighborhood. And poor neighborhoods often don't provide any healthy nutrition options at all."

Research has begun to confirm how fattening the inner city can be. A recent Carnegie Mellon study examined how the mix of fast-food outlets, parks and playgrounds affected obese children at a Pittsburgh weight-loss center. The closer the children were to outdoor recreation, and the farther away from junk food, the slimmer they became.

"Where they live turns out to be one of most important factors in how much success they will have in achieving significant improvements in health," said Kristen Kurland, a researcher in the university's Heinz School of Public Policy and Management.

Washington has awakened to the idea that neighborhoods can make kids fat. A range of government, community and nonprofit organizations are working to reduce urban barriers to weight loss, from a U.S. Transportation Department's "Safe Routes to School" project to licensing food carts that sell hummus and salads. The department will soon test a free "borrow-a-bike" project based on a popular program in Paris.

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