By Matt Murphy, SHNS
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 8, 2011….Looking to build off the success last session of passing an enhanced school nutrition bill, public health advocates have launched an Act FRESH campaign aimed at promoting access to healthy groceries, reforming the state’s zoning laws to encourage exercise and making physical education a bigger component of a student’s education.
With U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Howard Koh in town to mark the inclusion of Cambridge as the newest city to join First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, public health advocates in Massachusetts rolled out their own four-pronged legislative agenda Monday at a crowded State House rally.
The goal, according to advocates, is to bring public health initiatives to neighborhoods where people live focusing on prevention rather than treatment by encouraging healthier lifestyles for children and adults.
Koh, the former public health commissioner for the state, and Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby were on hand for the event, joining Health Commissioner John Auerbach, Public Health Committee Co-Chair Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Sen. Thomas McGee, Rep. Alice Wolf, and Rep. Louis Kafka.
“Good health care arises not just from treatment in a doctor’s office, but as importantly or even more importantly, where people live,” Koh said.
One piece of legislation, filed by Eldridge (D-Acton) would reform the state’s zoning laws to make it easier to preserve open space, build affordable housing and mixed-use developments in community centers and ensure that cities and towns are “more livable and walkable” with sidewalks and accommodations for bicycles.
Eldridge said the bill, titled the Land Use Reform and Protection Act, would “give communities more control over how their neighborhoods look.”
“Massachusetts has the most outdated zoning laws in the United States. That’s something that’s been embarrassing and this is the first update to the zoning laws in more than 60 years. It’s going to be a tough battle,” Eldridge said.
Another bill filed by Sen. McGee, of Lynn, would force an increase the hours required at all grade levels for physical education. McGee said the state walked back from its physical education requirements in 1996 after passage of an education reform law that put a strain on the school day schedule with new curriculum requirements to boost scores on the state’s MCAS exam.
Citing an American Heart Association statistic that reported 61 percent of children aged 9 to 13 have no physical activity outside of school, McGee said he supported legislation that would require 150 minutes per week of physical education a week for grades kindergarten through fifth grade, and 225 minutes for grades six through 12.
“We have a real epidemic,” said McGee, noting the rise in childhood obesity and diabetes. “If they’re not getting it outside of school, we need to make sure they get it in school.”
Though Virginia recently passed a law mandating 150 hours of physical education a week for grades K-8, McGee acknowledged that the funding required to do something like that in Massachusetts is a hurdle this session. “Obviously the money isn’t there, so we have to start thinking about how we maximize the resources we have and start having that conversation, whether it’s longer school days or after-school programs,” McGee said.
The coalition behind Act FRESH, led by the Massachusetts Public Health Association, has brought together 15 public health organizations from around the state with local and statewide ties to promote their agenda.
Heather McMann, the executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, said Massachusetts ranks third lowest in the country for grocery stores per capita, limiting access to healthy fruits and vegetables for many residents, particularly those living in lower income neighborhoods. She said Lawrence has just two grocery stores despite a population of about 70,000 people, forcing many poorer residents with limited transportation options to resort to corner convenience stores or fast food restaurants.
The coalition is calling for coordinated public and private support, including the possibility of tax credits to support local grocers and help them stock healthy food options for residents in urban centers without access to the larger chain stores.
The fourth goal of the campaign is to make sure local school districts implement the school nutrition law passed last year requiring schools to offer healthier lunch and snack options for students, including fruits and vegetables sold in school vending machines.
Shaquille Jones, a senior at Madison Park High School in Dorchester, said it’s equally important to make those options as appetizing as they are healthy so students don’t skip lunch and can concentrate in the classroom.
Bigby joined the rally in support of efforts to increase access to healthy foods and exercise and encourage preventative methods for improving the health of Bay State residents, though the administration has not specifically endorsed any legislative agenda.
Valerie Bassett, the executive director of the MPHA, said the Act FRESH coalition would continue to fight for funding despite the tight budget year because it would save on health care costs in the long-run.
“We can’t do prevention, if we don’t pay it,” Bassett said.