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

The D.C. Council has funded an "International Fitness Diplomats" program to have professional athletes visit high schools, and Mayor Adrian Fenty just announced a $100,000 grant for fitness programs.

The HSC Foundation, part of a new childhood obesity campaign, recently opened Healthy Living Center at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and W Street SE, offering free nutrition classes, dance, exercise and yoga.

"There's just been an explosion of activity," said Ruth Perot, executive director of the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, a health advocacy group. Her organization recently compiled a list of 700 programs targeting obesity and similar healthy lifestyle issues in the area.

In September, the District's Health Department hosted an obesity summit. Five months later, the department released an 80-page "Child Health Action Plan" that included 20 initiatives. The proposals included teaching child-care providers, many of whom work in private homes, how to serve lighter lunches and hold recess in a basement; putting more farmers markets or truck-based produce vendors into poor neighborhoods and ensuring that they accept food stamps; and tracking young people's body mass index in schools, doctors' offices and child-care centers.

The agency's efforts come after years of complaints from Perot and other advocates that the department has failed to take the lead on fighting obesity.

"We're hopeful, but we'll have to see," Perot said.

Nathaniel Beers, a pediatrician at Children's National Medical Center and a former Harvard Medical School instructor, recently joined the department as deputy director of community health programs. "For many years, the department of health was not leading the way -- that day is done," Beers said.

In Latrisha's neighborhood, two improvements are clear: the new Giant, which opened after the city sold the land to a developer on the condition that the development include the grocery store; and the free biweekly program. The FitNut program, operated in conjunction with Children's Hospital, holds classes for girls 6 to 9 and 10 to 16. With about a dozen children in each class, volunteers from George Washington University lead running games and nutrition lessons.

At a recent session, after a primer on the least-bad menu items at McDonald's (plain hamburger), KFC (grilled chicken breast) and Wendy's (ultimate chicken sandwich), Latrisha and her classmates sat down to snacks that might have been from another planet: baked veggie puffs, carrots, celery and organic natural peanut butter. Some of the girls looked dubious, but Latrisha's plate was clear in minutes. "That peanut butter was good," she said.

Learning to like healthier foods will do little if no one in the neighborhood sells them. FRAC's Hunger Solutions program has produced a map of Washington's "food deserts," whole swaths without a single place to buy fresh produce within one-mile radius of a population mostly without cars. In wards 7 and 8, there is only one full-service grocery store for every 23,269 residents, compared with one store for every 13,610 residents in the rest of the city.

In these areas, the children's daily sustenance comes from two sources: school meals and the corner shops and takeouts. In a survey of the fresh produce offered by 21 corner stores, FRAC found no grapes, no apples, no dark leaf lettuce.

"Usually it was just a cardboard box with onions and potatoes," said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of Hunger Solutions. "Most of these are one- or two-person operations without the cooler space for produce or the shelf space for a lot of perishable goods."

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